This piece originally ran in The American Prospect.
We think of America as the land of opportunity, but the United States actually has low rates of upward mobility relative to other advanced nations, and there has been no improvement in decades. Creating more opportunity is therefore a worthy goal. However, when the goal of more opportunity is offered instead of addressing income inequality, it’s a dodge and an empty promise—because opportunity does not thrive amid great inequalities.
It is important to distinguish between opportunity (or mobility) and income inequality. Concerns about mobility relate to strengthening the chances that children who grow up with relatively low incomes will attain middle-class or higher incomes in their adulthood. To address income inequality, on the other hand, is to focus on whether low- and middle-income households improve their share of the economic growth generated in the next two decades. Rising inequality is best illustrated by the fact that while the top 1 percent only received 9 percent of household income in 1979, this group gained either 38 percent (using the CBO’s comprehensive measure) or 60 percent (using tax data on market-based incomes) of the income growth between 1979 and 2007. That is, the top 1 percent received four to six times its expected share of all the income growth.
The opportunity dodge is popular with centrist and conservative politicians. Conservatives, for the most part, consider income outcomes to be the result of meritocracy. “I don’t care about income inequality per se; I care about opportunity inequality,” Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute recently said. “I want everybody to have a chance to be mobile, to rise, for everybody to have a chance to earn success.” Likewise, Jeb Bush’s highly touted speech to the Economic Club of Detroit keyed in on “the opportunity gap.” Left unsaid is that groups losing out from income inequality are judged to have not exerted sufficient effort, to have inadequate skills, or to have pursued counterproductive behaviors (such as not getting married).
As I noted in earlier blog posts, Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute and retired Towers Watson executive Sylvester Schieber have been leading a chorus of retirement crisis deniers, based in large part on the claim that income surveys don’t count lump-sum distributions from retirement accounts. While no one denies that the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey income measures don’t include these distributions, it has always been clear from other survey data—notably the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances—that savings in these accounts are so unequally distributed that they make little difference to most retiree households.
Starting in 2014, the Census Bureau began asking some survey respondents about lump-sum distributions as well as other questions designed to better capture income from interest-earning accounts and other sources. Preliminary results are in, and they don’t support Biggs and Schieber’s vision of sugar plums for retiree households. The median income of households 65 and older increased from $35,611 to $37,252—less than 5 percent—a far cry from the 60 percent difference Biggs and Schieber were throwing about. This is less than the increase seen by households age 45-54, whose median income rose from $67,141 to $70,802, presumably because income from retirement sources increased less than income from other interest-earning accounts.
Biggs and Schieber, usually impressively quick on the draw, have been noticeably silent.
The widespread, flagrant abuse of the H-1B visa, which allows employers to hire non-immigrant foreign workers for IT jobs and other skilled work, is drawing bipartisan attention in Congress. In particular, the case of Southern California Edison (SCE), which used two Indian outsourcing firms to replace 400-500 well-paid U.S. workers with cheaper guestworkers, has caught the attention of leaders from both parties. 10 senators sent a letter to the Obama administration calling for an investigation by the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Labor.
As we have pointed out many times, the biggest users of the H-1B visa are not small businesses looking for a rare scientist or information technology wizard. Rather, they are big corporations like Disney, SCE, and Northeast Utilities that want to reduce their labor costs by hiring younger, cheaper foreign workers. They hire “body shops” like Tata, Infosys and Wipro to import Indian college graduates to replace U.S. workers who might be paid $30,000 or $40,000 more. And it’s legal! It’s wrong and it’s appalling, but it’s legal.
Microsoft, Google, and the other high tech companies that want to increase the number of H-1B visas available to private employers by 120,000 or so claim they can’t find the tech workers they need in the U.S. and don’t have access to enough foreign workers. There is not much evidence to support their claim. But one thing is clear: if the H-1B visa weren’t used to replace U.S. workers, there would be a lot more available to Microsoft et al. Congress should reform the H-1B and prevent its abuse before it gives any thought to expanding the number of visas available.
This post was updated at 5:43 pm to reflect additional analysis.
Today, the Washington Post fact checker, Glenn Kessler, claimed that Public Citizen’s analysis of the Korean Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) is based on flawed economics and faulty math. Kessler accepts the White House claim that the employment effect of the KORUS should be based only “on a gain in merchandise exports,” and then claims that “the most appropriate way to look at export flows would be on an annual basis, which shows a net gain of about $2.3 billion. That’s theoretically a gain of 15,000—a far cry from the loss of 85,000 [jobs],” as estimated by Public Citizen. By ignoring imports, Kessler completely ignores one of the most important factors in the effects of trade on employment.
Imports reduce the demand for domestic goods and services. This is a fundamental assumption in introductory (and applied) macroeconomics. By ignoring it, Kessler denies his readers critical information needed to evaluate Public Citizen’s claim.
The Fact Checker approach (and the White House’s KORUS trade and job estimate) is a form of bookkeeping which counts only the credits and ignores the debits. It would earn a failing grade in any basic accounting class. Kessler spends a lot of time talking about things that make job and export calculations difficult (overall economic health, and the state of the business cycle), and yet he glosses over the impact of imports. It’s really important to calculate the jobs impact of both exports and imports, and it’s easy to do.
I’ve written before about how one of the recurring myths following the Great Recession has been that recovery in the labor market has lagged because workers don’t have the right skills. The figure below, which shows the number of unemployed workers and the number of job openings in February by industry, is the best way to rebut this idea. If today’s labor market woes were the result of skills shortages or mismatches, we would expect to see some sectors where there are significantly more unemployed workers than job openings, and others where there are significantly more job openings than unemployed workers. What we find when looking at the data is that there are more unemployed workers than jobs openings in most industries.
Last year, the graph showed that the number of unemployed workers exceeded job openings in all industries, but there have been some signs of tightening in February. For several months now, health care and social assistance was the only sector where those workers appeared to be facing a tighter labor market. Now, it appears that they are not alone: finance and insurance and wholesale trade both have job seekers and job openings close to on par with each other.
This within-sector tightening is a small sign of good news in February’s JOLTS report. Unfortunately, other sectors have seen little-to-no improvement in their job-seekers-to-job-openings ratios. There are, for example, still five-and-a-half unemployed construction workers for every job opening. In other words, despite claims from some employers, there is no shortage of construction workers.
In fact, while the market does appear to be improving for some types of unemployed workers, there are no significant worker shortages anywhere in the economy. Taken as a whole, these numbers demonstrate that the main problem in the labor market is a broad-based lack of demand for workers—not available workers lacking the skills needed for the sectors with job openings.
The hires, quits, and layoffs rates all held fairly steady in the February Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report.
As you can see in the figure below, layoffs shot up during the recession but recovered quickly and have been at prerecession levels for more than three years. The fact that this trend continued in February is a good sign. That said, not only do layoffs need to come down before we see a full recovery in the labor market, hiring needs to pick up. The hires rate was unchanged in February. It has been generally improving, but it still remains below its prerecession level.
The voluntary quits rate fell slightly from 2.0 in January to 1.9 in February, the same rate it had been for both November and December. In February, the quits rate was still 9.2 percent lower than it was in 2007, before the recession began. A larger number of people voluntarily quitting their jobs indicates a strong labor market—one where workers are able to leave jobs that are not right for them and find new ones. Before long, we should look for a return to pre-recession levels of voluntary quits, which would mean that fewer workers are locked into jobs they would leave if they could. But we are not there yet.
Hires, quits, and layoff rates, December 2000–February 2015
|Month||Hires rate||Layoffs rate||Quits rate|
Note: Shaded areas denote recessions. The hires rate is the number of hires during the entire month as a percent of total employment. The layoff rate is the number of layoffs and discharges during the entire month as a percent of total employment. The quits rate is the number of quits during the entire month as a percent of total employment.
Source: EPI analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey
The employment situation for March showed downward revisions to payroll employment in both January and February and a considerably slower growth in jobs in March. This morning’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report generally corroborates that story—the recovery hasn’t stalled, but it isn’t doing much better than simply chugging along.
The total number of job openings reached 5.1 million in February; the number of unemployed workers fell to 8.7 million. Taken together, the result was a slight drop in the job-seekers-to-job-openings ratio. In February, there were 1.7 times as many job seekers as job openings. This ratio has been declining steadily from its high of 6.8-to-1 in July 2009, as shown in the figure below.
The job-seekers ratio, December 2000–February 2015
|Month||Unemployed job seekers per job opening|
Note: Shaded areas denote recessions.
Source: EPI analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey and Current Population Survey
What’s notably missing from the story are the millions of workers who have been sidelined because of weak job opportunities. When the number of unemployed workers fell in February, the numbers of missing workers ticked up. While it’s important not to put too much weight into any one month’s number, it’s unlikely that a continued fall in the job-seekers-to-job-openings ratio is sustainable in the near term as more workers enter or re-enter the labor force when job opportunities grow.
Millions of potential workers sidelined: Missing workers,* January 2006–March 2015
* Potential workers who, due to weak job opportunities, are neither employed nor actively seeking work
Note: Volatility in the number of missing workers in 2006–2008, including cases of negative numbers of missing workers, is simply the result of month-to-month variability in the sample. The Great Recession–induced pool of missing workers began to form and grow starting in late 2008.
Source: EPI analysis of Current Population Survey public data series
This piece originally appeared in The Hill.
The April Fool is anyone who reads Alex Nowrasteh’s column about H-1B guest-workers and believes his bunk. If he had actually read the paper he cites about the effect of H-1B workers on American productivity he’d know that his claims are ludicrous. The paper doesn’t find that H-1B workers “have increased American productivity by 10 to 25 percent from 1990 to 2010”; it makes that estimate for the entire foreign STEM workforce, which includes one hundred thousand foreign students in the Optional Practical Training program who graduated with STEM degrees from U.S. schools, L-1 visa holders, and 300,000…
As I wrote earlier today, while it may be too soon to sound the alarm, this morning’s Employment Situation Report should give us pause. The bottom line is this: only 126,000 jobs added in March and the downward revision of 38,000 jobs in February, together make for disappointing numbers. While it’s important not to put too much stock in a couple months of data—especially since February and March’s job creation numbers were likely dampened by the unusually large amount of snow that blanketed the country those two months—policymakers should be wary of any signs of any slowdown from the solid job growth over the previous year.
Other indicators make it clear that there is still ample slack in the labor market, most notably in the continuing trend of inadequate wage growth—private sector hourly wages are up only 2.1 percent over the year. The chart below looks at both private sector wages and the wages of production and nonsupervisory workers over the last several years, and it’s clear that wages according to either measure are far below target.
There was, however, one positive wage sign: a mild acceleration in quarter over quarter hourly wages. The annualized increase between 2014 Q4 and 2015 Q1 was 2.8 percent, reasonably faster than trend 2.0 percent. Despite this mild acceleration, we need to see even faster growth, and for a longer time, before we can say the economy is truly working for working people. The slow growth of private sector wages coupled with a few months of disappointing jobs growth mean that the Federal Reserve should not be thinking about tapping the brakes any time soon.
Nominal wage growth has been far below target in the recovery: Year-over-year change in private-sector nominal average hourly earnings, 2007–2015
|All nonfarm employees||Production/nonsupervisory workers|
* Nominal wage growth consistent with the Federal Reserve Board's 2 percent inflation target, 1.5 percent productivity growth, and a stable labor share of income.
Source: EPI analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Employment Statistics public data series
Hardcore fans of EPI’s labor market indicators will notice a change today. Our estimate of the number of “missing workers”—potential workers who are no longer classified as in the labor force but who will likely be working or looking for work if the labor market improvement continues—has been revised.
Our earlier estimates were built in large part upon projections for labor force growth contained in a paper published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2007. These projections examined labor force participation rates for age-specific groups of both men and women between 1986 and 1996 and between 1996 and 2006. The paper then projected age- and gender-specific labor force participation rates for 2016.
We used these projected rates to see what labor force participation “should” be in each month between 2006 and 2016, and interpreted shortfalls between the actual participation rate and these projections as how much participation was depressed due to economic weakness, as opposed to structural changes in the labor force, like the retirement of baby boomers. We chose to look at pre-2008 projections precisely because we wanted these projections to be free of any cyclical drag imposed by the Great Recession.
But looking again at these projections recently, we noticed some slightly worrying features. For one, the labor force participation rate for men 25-34 fell significantly in both the 1986-1996 and 1996-2006 periods, yet was projected to rise substantially between 2006 and 2016. Further, the unemployment rate in 1986 was 7.0, the unemployment rate in 1996 was 5.4, and the unemployment rate in 2006 was 4.6 percent. This means that the trends estimated in the BLS projections may be buoyed up by cyclical effects. The BLS projections made no attempt to parse trends in participation rates that were driven by long-run trends versus cyclical weakness in the economy.
Eleven Atlanta educators, convicted and imprisoned, have taken the fall for systematic cheating on standardized tests in American education. Such cheating is widespread, as is similar corruption in any institution—whether health care, criminal justice, the Veterans Administration, or others—where top policymakers try to manage their institutions with simple quantitative measures that distort the institution’s goals. This corruption is especially inevitable when out-of-touch policymakers set impossible-to-achieve goals and expect that success will nonetheless follow if only underlings are held accountable for measurable results.
There was little doubt, even before the jury’s decision, that Atlanta teachers and administrators had changed answers on student test booklets to increase scores. There was also little doubt that Atlanta’s late superintendent, Beverly Hall, was partly responsible because she had, as a state investigation revealed, “created a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation” that had permitted “cheating—at all levels—to go unchecked for years.”
What the trial did not explore was whether Dr. Hall herself was reacting to a culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation that her board, state education officials, and the Bush and Obama administrations had created. Just as her principals’ jobs were in jeopardy if test scores didn’t rise, her tenure, too, was dependent on ever rising test scores.
Holding educators accountable for student test results makes sense if the tests are reasonable reflections of teacher performance. But if they are not, and if educators are being held accountable for meeting standards that are impossible to achieve, then the only way to meet fanciful goals imposed from above—according to federal law, that all children will make adequate yearly progress towards full proficiency in 2014—is to cheat, using illegal or barely legal devices. It is not surprising that educators do just that.
The recent budget negotiations in Congress are a reminder that policymakers can actively slow (or if they choose, speed up) recovery by depressing (or increasing) demand. As the budget talks continue, it is important to remember that more stimulus, not austerity, would have aided in the labor market recovery, and would still be a powerful way to grow the economy.
Austerity at all levels of government continues to be a drag on the economy. The effects of austerity are widespread. Cuts to safety net programs (like SNAP), for instance, not only hurt families, but also decrease demand which would spur on job growth. One clear, direct effect, meanwhile,is the lack of public sector jobs, particularly at the local level—think teachers.
As shown in the figure below, public sector jobs are still nearly half a million down from where they were before the recession began. And, this fails to account for the fact that we would have expected these jobs to grow with the population—taking that into consideration, the economy is short 1.8 million public sector jobs. This shortfall in jobs in turn removes the multiplier effect on private sector demand, snowballing into an even slower recovery.
The National Retail Federation Hates the Proposed Overtime Rules (Even Though No One Knows What They Are)
The National Retail Federation (NRF) doesn’t know what the U.S. Department of Labor’s new rules concerning exemptions from overtime protections will be, but they know they’re against them. Claiming to speak on behalf of managers who might be affected by the not-yet-released rules, NRF says: “Retail managers say the proposed changes to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act regulations show the Department greatly misunderstands their roles in the workplace and would effectively strip retail managers of their salaried status, generating negative consequences for the entire industry.”
But unless someone has leaked the proposed rule to them, NRF is just making things up! What are “the proposed changes to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act regulations” that the managers disapprove? NRF doesn’t say. Equally important, what did NRF tell the managers it surveyed? Why do “75 percent of respondents” say “the changes would diminish the effectiveness of training and hinder managers’ ability to lead by example”? I personally doubt very much the proposed rule, if it is ever issued, will say anything about training.
Some of the NRF report’s “key findings” are pretty wild. For example, “Duties and salary are not effective litmus tests for successful management.” The Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to pay an overtime premium to all employees, including managers, unless they are bona fide executives, administrators, or professionals. The definition of “executive” has always, since the FLSA was enacted in 1938, used duties tests and the salary level to determine who is a bona fide executive. That is the case today, so the “key finding” is nonsense. The question for the Department of Labor is what salary level is an executive salary? Is it $70,000 a year, or is it the current $23,660 threshold set by the Bush administration in 2004?
What to Watch on Jobs Day: Weather-Related Revisions, Thoughts on Austerity, Missing Workers, and Nominal Wages
As another Jobs Day approaches, there are a few things I’ll be thinking about and watching for: the top line payroll employment numbers and whether the February number will get revised downward (because of the weather); the effect that proposed budget cuts could have (and the harmful effects that austerity has had so far on the economic recovery); whether more people enter the labor force in March as job opportunities appear to be on the horizon and what that does to our missing workers number (and the official unemployment rate); and, of course, what’s happening with nominal wages (and the patience of the Fed).
While payroll employment has picked up in the last year, February’s numbers—295,000 new jobs—came in a little higher than expectations. It’s possible that revisions may lower that number slightly, because of the unseasonably large amounts of snow that fell mid-month. However, we should not put too much stock into any small deviations from trend. Job growth has been solid, and as long as it stays that way, a return to pre-recession labor market health is about two years away.
I’m optimistic for stronger growth and a faster recovery, but the recent budget talks are a reminder that policymakers can actively slow (or if they choose, speed up) recovery by depressing (or increasing) demand. As the budget debate continues in Congress, it is important to remember that more stimulus, not austerity, would have aided in the labor market recovery. Austerity at all levels of government continues to be a drag on the economy. One clear direct effect of austerity is that public sector jobs are still nearly half a million down from where they were before the recession began. And, this fails to account for the fact that we would have expected these jobs to grow with the population—taking that into consideration, the economy is short 1.3 million public sector jobs. This shortfall in jobs in turn removes the multiplier effect on private sector demand, snowballing into an even slower recovery. Furthermore, cuts to public programs (like SNAP) not only hurts families, but also lower the demand needed to spur on job growth.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to present findings from my recent report, The Impact of Full Employment on African American Employment and Wages, at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Full Employment forum. This blog post is taken from my opening remarks, which you can watch on C-SPAN.
Talking about the labor market each month has become a bit like taking my children on a road trip—every couple miles one of them is asking, “Are we there yet?” In the case of the labor market, this question commonly refers to whether or not the economy has fully recovered. In both cases, my typical response is, “No, not yet.” If you’re familiar with either of these situations you know that answer usually leads to another question: “How much longer?” The answer to that question ultimately depends on the intended destination.
Clearly, going to a neighborhood park requires less time in the car and is cheaper than going to Busch Gardens. However, it’s also true that the payoff for these two destinations is not the same. Similarly, I would argue that full employment is a better destination with a better payoff than full recovery, and this is especially true for African Americans. The distinction is this: A full recovery is simply a return to pre-Great Recession labor market conditions. Whether or not that’s a good outcome depends on how well you were doing in 2007—while the national unemployment rate in 2007 was 5.6 percent, the black unemployment rate was 8.3 percent. On the other hand, full employment raises the bar to the point at which anyone who is willing and able to work at the prevailing wage rate can find a job.
(Update of a blog post from March 14, 2014).
March 15th was the third anniversary of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS). President Obama said that the agreement would support 70,000 U.S. jobs. This claim was supported by a White House fact sheet that claimed that the KORUS agreement would “increase exports of American goods by $10 to $11 billion…” and that they would “support 70,000 American jobs from increased goods exports alone.” Things are not turning out as predicted. Far from supporting jobs, growing goods trade deficits with Korea have eliminated more than 75,000 jobs between 2011 and 2014.
Expanding exports alone is not enough to ensure that trade adds jobs to the economy. Increases in U.S. exports tend to create jobs in the United States, but increases in imports lead to job loss—by destroying existing jobs and preventing new job creation—as imports displace goods that otherwise would have been made in the United States by domestic workers. Thus, it is changes in trade balances—the net of exports and imports—that determine the number of jobs created or displaced by trade and investment deals like KORUS.
In the first three years after KORUS took effect, U.S. domestic exports to Korea increased by only $0.8 billion, an increase of 1.8 percent, as shown in the figure below. Imports from Korea increased $12.6 billion, an increase of 22.5 percent. As a result, the U.S.trade deficit with Korea increased $11.8 billion between 2011 and 2014, an increase of 80.4 percent, nearly doubling in just three years.
Should We Force Integration on Those Who Don’t Want It?, and Other Commonplace Questions about Race Relations
Last week, Stuart Butler and Jonathan Grabinsky of the Brookings Institution published a web-memorandum describing “Segregation and Concentrated Poverty in the Nation’s Capital.” It showed that racial segregation has not diminished in Washington, D.C. over the last 20 years and that few blacks in the city live in low-poverty neighborhoods, while most whites in the city do so. It noted that such segregation blocks economic mobility for African Americans.
I write here not so much to discuss their memorandum as the comments that followed it on the memo’s web page. One asked,
“Who is forcing this segregation? Could it just maybe be a voluntary choice of the individuals involved? Could it be basic human nature to be with those more like yourself??? Do you think we should force integration on all Americans regardless of what they want???… Why is it the business of government to decide who lives where??”
Another observed that African Americans in the Washington metropolitan area are
“…moving to segregated areas of Maryland which does not help the situation. Even though mandating a move [to integrated neighborhoods] might be a good social engineering experiment I’m sure it will be quickly looked on as gerrymandering.”
And another said that it is obvious that
“there are negative consequences to a person’s decision NOT to invest in their own human capital, to develop marketable skills or to become educated… [L]et’s not get fooled by the notion that “segregation” is a cause. We are all self-educated! It’s just that some of us decided not to participate in that effort. … I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for anybody that decides to follow that path – nor do I think the rest of us should have to pay for it!”
These are very commonplace reactions to discussions of racial segregation, by those who are relatively well-informed and those who are not, and by liberals and conservatives alike. These issues deserve to be aired, explored, and resolved.
The first commenter asks, reasonably, “Why is it the business of government to decide who lives where?” Perhaps it is not, but the commenter fails to realize that it was government that decided that blacks should live in ghettos. We should think of efforts to desegregate as only a demand that government undo the enduring effects of its previous unconstitutional decisions about who should live where. The second commenter is partly correct that desegregation policy would be “social engineering.” What she fails to realize is that it would only be reverse social engineering, attempting to undo the harm previously committed by government’s successful and multi-faceted efforts to engineer segregation.Read more
As I’ve noted before, as trade agreements and other legislation (Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA) get debated, you’ll see more and more bad arguments in favor of them. Just yesterday, a study from Third Way claimed that trade agreements signed after 2000 have led to reductions in the U.S. trade deficit. They label these post-2000 trade agreements as “higher standard” trade agreements.
My guess it would be news to lots of policymakers that, say, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and the Australia-U.S. FTA, signed in the mid-2000s during the George W Bush administration, and the Korea-US and Panama-US agreements, signed in 2012 and 2013 respectively, all qualify as simply indistinguishably “high-standard.” For instance, those who follow issues of labor standards, say, would argue that CAFTA had far less effective labor protections than these later agreements.
Leaving that aside, Third Way claims that because bilateral trade balances between the United States and the signatory countries improved after the treaties were enacted, that this means these agreements are “working.” This is really facile analysis. To see why, just note that the large majority (about 75%) of the total improvement in bilateral trade deficits following trade treaty enactment that Third Way identifies occurred with a set of countries that signed trade agreements between 2004 and 2006: Singapore, Chile, Australia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Morocco and Bahrain. The real action is the first three, which account for nearly all the improvement in this groups’ bilateral trade balance improvement between treaty enactment and 2014.
What’s the significance of this? Well of course the sum of trade balances with those countries improved between 2004-06 and 2014—the overall U.S. trade deficit fell from over $1 trillion on average in those years to just over $900 billion today.*
There was nothing magic at all about those trade treaties that drove improvement in the nation’s trade balance—what happened between the mid-2000s and today was the Great Recession, which compressed imports and reduced trade deficits. Add to this the improvement in the U.S. oil trade balance (which I don’t think anybody claims has been influenced by trade treaties) and you really don’t need to invoke trade treaties at all to explain improving trade balances between 2004-06 and 2014.
*Update: I’m reporting numbers that used the same deflation choice Third Way used – converting to $2014 using the CPI-U-RS. This isn’t quite the right way to deflate these, but wanted my numbers to be comparable.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill.
The annual federal budget debate typically doesn’t excite many folks outside the Washington beltway. And with good reason—the Republican budget process is intended to lull the public to sleep by staying short on details and long on damaging provisions that will hurt low-income and middle-class families.
But folks should pay attention to the debate because budgets have consequences—and if done right, they can truly move our country forward. The “People’s Budget,” which we both helped prepare, is a bold and responsible alternative to the Republican plans that take from working families while giving more to corporations and the wealthy.
The GOP budgets proposed in Congress would cut about $5 trillion over the next decade. The overwhelming burden would fall on programs that boost working families: education, Medicare and Medicaid, college aid, job training, medical research and rebuilding roads and bridges. Tens of millions of Americans would lose health insurance and millions more would lose food stamps or be priced out of college.
Republicans push these devastating cuts as a path to a balanced budget. But their budgets have been widely panned by experts as being based on “magic asterisks.” While they’re comfortable putting the squeeze on working families who will be most affected by these cuts in benefits and services, they refuse to ask corporations and the wealthy to contribute one thin dime to the effort. In fact, not one tax loophole is closed by their budgets.
The Senate Judiciary Committee explored important economic questions this week. Should businesses be able to lay off qualified U.S. tech workers and replace them with lower paid foreign workers? Is there a shortage of skilled Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) workers—or an oversupply? And even if there is such a shortage, should we import temporary non-immigrant labor from abroad, or would it be better to let the free market work long enough for wages to rise and more students to be attracted to these fields?
The committee’s Republican and Democratic members disagreed with each other without regard to party labels. No senator, in fact, seemed more concerned about the rights of U.S. workers and their economic outcomes—and more skeptical of claims made by the business community—than Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a conservative, anti-union Republican. Two Democrats, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) took the side of big business, along with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Jeff Flake, while Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) defended the interests of U.S. workers.
Most Americans probably think it is illegal to lay off an U.S. worker and replace him with a temporary foreign worker. Yet Prof. Ron Hira and several other witnesses testified that this is not just a common practice, it is the primary use of the H-1B visa program. (Hira points out that most of the top 10 users of the H-1B visa are firms that outsource and offshore U.S. IT jobs.) When Ben Johnson of the American Immigration Council said replacing U.S. workers should not be prohibited, Sens. Hatch, Klobuchar, and Flake all agreed; in fact, they voted in 2013 to remove language from the immigration bill that would have made it illegal to use the H-1B visa to replace U.S. workers. And all three are sponsors of the “I-Squared” bill, which would triple the number of temporary non-immigrant foreign workers replacing Americans.
Yesterday I wrote a quick overview of the House GOP budget proposal, which I argued would clearly be bad for our economic—and quite possibly physical—health. The Senate GOP budget proposal is a bit better, but while less it’s less austere than the House GOP budget, it is still harmful to the general welfare and the economy.
The Senate Budget Committee’s fiscal year 2016 budget resolution, proposed by Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), would continue damaging austerity for yet another year. This budget, which like the House Budget resolution passed with only GOP support, proposes to eliminate the budget deficit by 2025 without raising taxes. However, to achieve this goal, the budget punishes low- and middle-income people, with cuts to public investments (education, infrastructure, research and development), Medicaid, unemployment benefits, and nutrition programs for needy children.
Furthermore, because these cuts start early, when the economy is still likely to be operating below potential due to deficient aggregate demand, the budget plan has adverse effects on economic growth and jobs in the near-term. Based on standard multipliers and relationships between GDP and employment growth, I estimate that the Senate GOP budget cuts would reduce GDP by 0.7 percent in FY2016 and decrease payrolls by almost 800,000 jobs, relative to CBO’s baseline economic and budget projections. It gets even worse in FY2017—GDP would be reduced by almost 1.9 percent, with payrolls decreasing by 2.3 million jobs.
All in all, the Senate GOP budget does slightly less damage than the House GOP budget, but that’s a low bar to clear.
The House Budget Committee passed, along party lines, a fiscal year 2016 budget resolution proposed by Chairman Tom Price that would continue damaging austerity for yet another year. This draconian budget proposes to eliminate the budget deficit by 2025 without raising taxes. To achieve this goal, the budget would punish low- and middle-income people by reducing economic growth and jobs over the next 2 fiscal years, eroding the effectiveness of safety net programs, taking away health insurance coverage provided by the Affordable Care Act, and reducing public investments. If the Obamacare repeal and proposed savings from debt servicing are excluded, 95 percent of the House GOP budget cuts are targeted to just 38 percent of federal spending—the spending that includes public investments (education, infrastructure, research and development), Medicaid, unemployment benefits, and nutrition programs for needy children.
Besides the clearly significant, but hard to precisely quantify harm done to the general welfare, the House GOP budget resolution would damage economic growth in coming years in quite predictable ways. I estimate that the House GOP budget cuts would reduce GDP by 1 percent in FY2016 and decrease payrolls by 1.3 million jobs, relative to CBO’s baseline economic and budget projections. It gets even worse in FY2017—GDP would be reduced by almost 2.5 percent with payrolls decreasing by 2.9 million jobs.
It seems rather odd that the GOP would completely ignore the current state of the economy in designing their FY2016 budget. While the official unemployment rate is slowly falling and the economy is adding jobs every month, there continues to be a great deal of slack in the labor market. First, unemployment still remains high among some racial and ethnic groups. Second, the “jobs gap”—the number of jobs needed to restore the labor market to pre-Great Recession health—remains in the millions. Furthermore, there is only one job opening for every two job seekers. Finally, wages are stagnant for the majority of workers. Yet the budget appears to be designed to knock workers down and take away a hand up.
Fiscal austerity has been best described as a dangerous idea. The GOP seems bent on turning a dangerous idea into a health hazard.
It was widely reported yesterday that the word “patient” was dropped from the Federal Reserve statement on monetary policy. But too much focus on this one word might lead one to miss the forest through the trees.
Yes, the Fed no longer is committed to official “patience.” In practice that’s their way of saying we could raise rates at any time in coming meetings without giving you (and by “you,” I mean “markets”) any more warning. This has been widely (and reasonably) interpreted to mean that such a rate increase is coming soon.
Such a rate increase would be a mistake. The labor market is clearly improving, with unemployment falling and job growth accelerating in 2014. But the point of raising interest rates shouldn’t, of course, be simply to sabotage the labor market anytime it starts generating lots of jobs and reducing unemployment. The point of rate hikes in the face of economic strength is supposed to be preventing incipient inflationary pressures. But there’s an important link in the chain between falling unemployment and accelerating inflation: wages have to start accelerating. Importantly, they need to start accelerating faster than the sum of the Fed’s inflation target plus productivity growth.
What’s the logic of this wage target? For one, note that nominal (i.e., not inflation-adjusted) wage growth that simply equals productivity growth puts no upward pressure on prices at all. Say that wages rise by 2 percent but productivity rises by 2 percent too. What has happened to the cost per unit of output? Nothing. Hourly wages are up 2 percent, but the amount produced in each hour of work has risen by 2 percent as well, so costs per unit of output haven’t budged. Assume trend productivity growth of around 1.5-2 percent, and this means that only nominal wage growth over 1.5-2 percent puts any upward pressure on prices at all.
What’s Wrong with the TPP? This deal will lead to more job loss and downward pressures on the wages of most working Americans
In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, three prominent economists, David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson make a number of controversial arguments in favor of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Autor, et al, acknowledge that the United States has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000 due to globalization and automation, but they then make the argument that these jobs are not coming back. There’s no sense closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, as it were. But this line of thought ignores the crucial role played by currency manipulation, which costs jobs by subsidizing foreign exports to the United States while acting like a tax on U.S. exports. Many prominent economists, including Fred Bergsten and Larry Summers, have said that trade deals like the TPP should include restrictions on currency manipulation. As Dean Baker notes, this is particularly important to keep in mind because the TPP is designed to be expandable, and countries such as China (the world’s largest currency manipulator), Korea, and India are candidates for early inclusion in an expanded TPP, if the agreement is completed.
Eliminating currency manipulation could reduce the U.S. trade deficit by up to $500 billion, adding up to 4.9 percent to U.S. GDP and creating up to 5.8 million U.S. jobs, with about 40 percent (2.3 million) of those jobs gained in manufacturing. So, many of those lost manufacturing jobs could in fact be recovered, in part through the inclusion of a currency clause that Autor, et al, fail to consider in their analysis of the TPP. A TPP without a currency clause will make it affirmatively harder to end currency manipulation in the future, and the effect of this on net exports swamps the effect of even large tariff cuts.
The TPP, trade, and job loss
Autor, Dorn, and Hanson go on to claim that because U.S. tariffs are already low, import competition from TPP members would “barely affect” U.S. manufacturers. This is an old claim, often made for previous trade and investment deals, and the actual outcomes have rarely supported these predictions. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), it was Mexico that made large tariff concessions when U.S. tariffs were already low. Yet U.S. imports from Mexico still grew much faster than exports to that country, eliminating nearly 700,000 U.S. jobs by 2010 through growing trade deficits.
When China came into the WTO in 2001, it clearly had much higher tariffs than the United States, and China made large tariff cuts to gain WTO admission. Yet growing U.S. trade deficits with China through 2013 eliminated 3.2 million U.S. jobs. If tariff cuts are so favorable to U.S. exports, why do these deals usually result in growing U.S. trade deficits and job losses?
Mexico and China both experienced a tremendous increase in foreign direct investment (FDI) and outsourcing in the wake of NAFTA and China’s WTO entry. FDI in Mexico nearly tripled as a share of GDP in the decade after NAFTA, compared with the decade before NAFTA. China, meanwhile, became the third largest recipient of FDI in the world. In both countries, FDI fueled the growth of thousands of new manufacturing plants that generated exports to the United States and other markets.
Manufacturers were willing to invest in Mexico and China because of special protections offered in these deals for investors, including greatly expanded intellectual property rights and special, extra-judicial dispute settlement mechanisms to protect corporate investments (so-called investor-state dispute settlement or ISDS). The TPP threatens to roll back U.S. regulations in areas such as food safety, banking and finance regulations. These changes will be enforced through private actions under the ISDS, as well as changes in government rules.
Finally, Autor, Dorn, and Hanson’s claim that the TPP won’t significantly expand access to the U.S. market (“tariffs are already low”) is hard to reconcile with the desire of other countries to sign the deal. Why would they sign and make the sacrifices required, if not for access to the U.S. market?
It’s also important to acknowledge that terms of the TPP are still secret, and negotiations are incomplete. We are basing our analysis based on what’s happened under past agreements; other seem to be basing their analysis on their own policy preferences.
The authors claim that enhanced intellectual property rights in the TPP will generate substantial benefits for U.S. corporations and U.S. workers in industries such as information and computer services and other industries that derive much of their incomes from copyrights and royalties (including movies and hi-tech firms like Apple and pharmaceutical makers like Pfizer). While high-tech service industries are the glamour names in these discussions, it’s important to keep in mind that U.S. manufacturing firms, which stand to lose out as a result of the TPP, are responsible for more than two-thirds of U.S. business research and development spending (68.9 percent of total business R&D in 2012).
Special protections for investors in the proposed TPP will encourage the growth of outsourcing to TPP countries. In this regard, what’s important to remember is that 12 million jobs remain in U.S. manufacturing. It’s these jobs that are on the line in the next wave of outsourcing. The TPP will open up countries like Vietnam and Malaysia to more U.S. FDI and outsourcing. If China and India are allowed to join the deal in the future, the threat of additional outsourcing will increase exponentially.
The United States already has a large and growing trade deficit with the 11 other countries in the proposed TPP that reached $265.1 billion in 2014. In contrast, the United States had a small trade surplus with Mexico in 1993, before NAFTA took effect. Outsourcing to the TPP countries is a potentially much greater threat than it was under NAFTA with Mexico.
TPP will increase wage inequality
Globalization has already increased wage and income inequality, and here our findings are similar to those of Autor, et al’s, published research (though not mentioned in their column). Our research has identified two channels through which trade and globalization have driven down the wages of working Americans. First, the growth of trade deficits with China (along with other low wage countries) has forced workers out of good-paying jobs with excellent benefits into lower-paying jobs in non-traded (e.g. service) industries. I have estimated that this resulted in direct wage losses of $37 billion for the 2.7 million workers displaced by China trade in 2011 alone.
And second, my colleague Josh Bivens has used standard trade models to estimate that expanded trade has changed the composition of jobs in ways that reduced the annual wages of a full-time American worker without a four-year college degree who earns the median wage by $1,800 per year. Given that there are roughly 100 million non-college-educated workers in the U.S. economy, the scale of wage losses suffered by this group likely translates into close to a full 1 percent of GDP—roughly $180 billion.
Autor et al’s arguments about the benefits of the TPP add fuel to the income inequality fire. As Dean Baker notes, they argue that the regulatory structures being developed in the agreement would “largely benefit U.S. corporations, since they would get more money for the patents and copyrights,” and would gain new tools to use against foreign governments who threaten those profits.
The corporations that stand to benefit have few, if any, organic ties to the U.S. economy—most have outsourced a large share of production jobs to other countries. The primary beneficiaries will be people from the United States who happen to own stock in these companies. And the greatest benefits will flow to those who own the most stocks, primarily those in the top 1, 5, and 10 percent of the income distribution. So, the TPP and similar agreements will only serve to worsen U.S. income inequality.
What’s more, there are costs to providing greater protections to intellectual property. As Paul Krugman recently noted, protecting intellectual property creates a monopoly for the patent or copyright holder, which makes the world poorer. And as Dean Baker notes, it also diverts resources to the monopolists, reducing demand for everything else made by producers of other products. Questions about the impact of the TPP on income distribution and the distortions imposed by tightening intellectual property rights have motivated Nobel Prize winning economists such as Krugman and Joseph E. Stiglitz to challenge the justification for the TPP.
The administration has chosen to conduct a high-stakes campaign for fast-track authority to conclude negotiation of the TPP and a similar agreement with the European Union (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). While fast-track requires congressional approval of negotiating objectives, it creates a process for consideration of final agreements that denies members of Congress the right to revise or amend any part of those agreements.
Alternatively, the president could decide to take steps to end currency manipulation by China and more than 20 other countries, mostly in Asia. There are a number of steps that could be taken, such as the inclusion of currency manipulation clause in the TPP. The president and federal agencies already possess the tools needed to end currency manipulation outside of the TPP. The Treasury and Federal Reserve Board of Governors have the authority needed to offset purchases of foreign assets by foreign governments by engaging in countervailing currency intervention. By taking these steps, the U.S. government could make efforts by foreign governments to manipulate their currencies costly and/or ineffective.
Ending currency manipulation could create up to 5.8 million U.S. jobs, and up to 2.3 million jobs in manufacturing alone. Manufacturing is not dead. Manufacturing job loss is not a “fait accompli,” in the words of Autor, et al. Creating millions of jobs in the United States, and especially good jobs in manufacturing, would raise U.S. wages and begin to reverse the rise in U.S. income inequality that has had a strangle hold on the economy for the past 30 years.
The president can continue the fight for fast-track and the TPP, raising corporate profits while putting good manufacturing jobs and wages at risk. Or he can take action to create jobs and reduce inequality. He can’t do both.
This post originally appeared in the New York Times Room for Debate forum on March 12, 2015.
“Right-to-work” laws deny unions the money they need to help employees bargain with their employers for better wages, benefits and working conditions. So it’s not surprising that research shows that workers in “right-to-work” states have lower wages and fewer benefits, on average, than workers in other states.
Under federal law, no one can be forced to join a union as a condition of employment, and the Supreme Court has made clear that workers can’t be forced to pay dues used for political purposes. Right-to-work goes one step further and entitles employees to the benefits of a union contract — including the right to have the union take up their grievance if their employer abuses them — without paying any of the cost.
This means that if a worker who does not pay a union representation fee is fired, the union must prosecute that worker’s grievance just as it would a dues-paying member’s, even if it costs tens of thousands of dollars. Non-dues-paying workers would also receive the higher wages and benefits their dues-paying coworkers enjoy. Right-to-work laws have nothing to do with whether people can be forced to join a union or contribute to political causes they don’t support; that’s already illegal. The only freedom workers would receive is the ability to get something for nothing.
But this comes at a substantial cost. As compared with non-right-to-work states, wages in right-to-work states are 3.2 percent lower on average, or about $1,500 less a year. Workers in right-to-work states were less likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance and pension coverage. This does not just apply to union members, but to all employees in a state.
Where unions are strong, compensation increases even for workers not covered by any union contract, as nonunion employers face competitive pressure to match union standards. Likewise, when unions are weakened by right-to-work laws, all of a state’s workers feel the impact.
In our recent EPI briefing paper, How Low Can We Go?, we noted that a lower proportion of jobless workers are protected by state unemployment insurance (UI) programs than at any time in history. The UI benefit recipiency rate for state programs fell to 23.1 percent in December 2014—below the previous record-low level of 25.0 percent in September 1984.
Eight states that cut the length of time benefits were available below the traditional 26 weeks have seen recipiency declines that exceeded all other states that did not abandon the 26 week norm.
The figure below shows declines in short-term benefit recipiency in each of the eight states starting with the month cuts took effect, and compares those declines to the average decline in the states not taking this approach over the same time periods. We calculated a short-term recipiency rate in order to isolate the target population for state UI programs—those out of work for less 26 weeks or less. Even using this narrower definition of benefit recipiency, nationally only 35 out of 100 jobless workers received UI benefits at the end of 2014. In South Carolina, which cut available weeks to 20 in 2011 and adopted other restrictions, fewer than 15 out of 100 short-term unemployed workers got UI in 2014.
By Saving Billions in Retiree Health and Pension Benefits, Auto Bailouts Were an Even Bigger Success Than Acknowledged
Austan Goolsbee and Alan Krueger’s new working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, “A Retrospective Look at Rescuing and Restructuring General Motors and Chrysler,” provides an excellent analysis of the auto bailouts. However, it focuses mostly on the impact of bailouts on auto production and jobs for current workers. Unfortunately, for the most part it fails to discuss the impact on retirees, which had major ramifications for the federal government and the country as a whole.
The issue of the retirees was of critical importance to the auto companies’ passage through the bankruptcy process. At the time General Motors filed for bankruptcy, it had 10 retirees for every active employee. Chrysler’s retiree-to-active worker ratio was similarly skewed. Overall, there were about 870,000 UAW retirees and dependents in the pension and health care plans at GM, Chrysler, and Ford at the time of the federal bailout. The alternative to the auto bailouts—uncontrolled bankruptcies at GM and Chrysler, and the likely demise of Ford as well—would have had devastating consequences for the huge numbers of retirees and their families.
Goolsbee and Krueger do note that if the companies had not received the federal bailouts, and instead had undergone uncontrolled bankruptcies, their pension plans would have been terminated and billions of dollars in unfunded pension liabilities would have been transferred to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), threatening the financial stability of that agency. However, the authors fail to mention that the termination of the pension plans would also have made retirees aged 55 to 64 eligible for the federal health care tax credit. This would have put the federal government on the hook for billions of dollars in retiree health care liabilities.
Hidden amid all the discussion of when falling unemployment will lead to rising wages are the expectations shared in the media and among economic analysts that we can only expect wages to rise when unemployment is low. There is confusion here. Yes, we certainly expect wages to rise more quickly as unemployment falls. But why is there a widespread acceptance that real wages will not rise (i.e., that wages will not rise faster than inflation) at all when there is 5.5 or 6.5 percent unemployment? Why not expect real wages to rise every year as they used to in the United States and in other advanced nations? After all, output per hour has been steadily rising, profits have been historically high, and the stock market has soared. There are certainly no economic fundamentals that only allow real wages (on average or at the median) to rise during the few short years of each business cycle when unemployment is relatively low.
These lowered expectations reflect how poorly wages have performed over the last four decades. These low expectations constitute an unstated acceptance of an unacceptable normal that real wages will rarely rise. Reflecting this, analysts claim to be “puzzled” that wages have yet to accelerate as the recovery gains momentum, but seemingly are not puzzled at all when real wages fail to grow on a regular basis. So, I am calling on analysts and the journalists who cover them to examine, or at least explain, their unstated assumptions about wage growth. My view is that the failure of white-collar and blue-collar real wages to rise for well over a decade (through the last recovery and not only the recent recession but also this recovery) reflects a policy regime that makes employers dominant in the labor market, enabling them to suppress wage growth.
One of the recurring myths following the Great Recession has been that recovery in the labor market has lagged because workers don’t have the right skills. The figure below, which shows the number of unemployed workers and the number of job openings in January by industry, is a useful way to examine this idea. If today’s labor market woes were the result of skills shortages or mismatches, we would expect to see some sectors where there are more unemployed workers than job openings, and others where there are more job openings than unemployed workers. What we find, however, is that there are more unemployed workers than jobs openings in almost every industry.
The notable exception is health care and social assistance, which has been consistently adding jobs throughout the business cycle, and there are signs that workers in that industry are facing a tighter labor market. However, we have yet to see any sign of decent wage gains yet, which would be the final indicator that the labor market, at least for those workers, was approaching reasonable health.
Other sectors have seen little-to-no improvement in their job-seekers-to-job-openings ratios. There are, for example, still nearly six unemployed construction workers for every job opening. In other words, despite claims from some employers, there is no shortage of construction workers.
Taken as a whole, these numbers demonstrate that the main problem in the labor market is a broad-based lack of demand for workers—not available workers lacking the skills needed for the sectors with job openings.
Unemployed and job openings, by industry (in millions)
|Professional and business services||1.0633||0.8969|
|Health care and social assistance||0.7018||0.7433|
|Accommodation and food services||0.9598||0.6060|
|Finance and insurance||0.2514||0.2338|
|Durable goods manufacturing||0.4524||0.1817|
|Transportation, warehousing, and utilities||0.3498||0.1688|
|Nondurable goods manufacturing||0.2974||0.1137|
|Real estate and rental and leasing||0.1148||0.0638|
|Arts, entertainment, and recreation||0.2106||0.0684|
|Mining and logging||0.0518||0.0273|
Note: Because the data are not seasonally adjusted, these are 12-month averages, February 2014–January 2015.
Source: EPI analysis of data from the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey and the Current Population Survey
The hires, quits, and layoffs rates all held fairly steady in the January Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS). As you can see in the figure below, layoffs shot up during the recession but recovered quickly and have been at prerecession levels for more than three years. The fact that this trend continued in December is a good sign. That said, not only do layoffs need to come down before we see a full recovery in the labor market, but hiring needs to pick up. While the hires rate has been generally improving, it’s still below its prerecession level.
The voluntary quits rate rose slightly from 1.9 in December to 2.0 in January, the same rate it had been for both September and October. In January, the quits rate was still 8.0 percent lower than it was in 2007, before the recession began. A larger number of people voluntarily quitting their jobs indicates a strong labor market—one where workers are able to leave jobs that are not right for them and find new ones. Before long, we should look for a return to pre-recession levels of voluntary quits, which would mean that fewer workers are locked into jobs they would leave if they could. But, we are not there yet.
Hires, quits, and layoff rates, December 2000–January 2015
|Month||Hires rate||Layoffs rate||Quits rate|
Note: Shaded areas denote recessions. The hires rate is the number of hires during the entire month as a percent of total employment. The layoff rate is the number of layoffs and discharges during the entire month as a percent of total employment. The quits rate is the number of quits during the entire month as a percent of total employment.
Source: EPI analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey