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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Today’s Wages Have the Same Purchasing Power as in 1978

(Email publishing of The Wrongologist should be restored as Wrongo is using a different vendor, WordPress. Apologies to those who read in email.)

The Daily Escape:

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, as it might have looked at night in the 12th Century lit by camp fires. Mesa Verde is unique since it is the only NP that preserves the works of man – photo by Rick Dunnahoo

This is going to be a historic year, even when compared to 2018. And it’s starting out with a bang. The government is shut down, half the cabinet is empty, the 2020 presidential race has officially started, and the Democrats are taken over the House.

And that’s without whatever Mueller shoe will drop sometime in the year, or whatever Twitter atrocities Trump decides to commit. In other words, we’re going to have our hands full.

But today, let’s talk about how bad the economy is below the surface of the headline numbers. Debt is rising, and rising debt is supposed to be matched by rising income. It shouldn’t be a surprise that more income is required in order to service more debt. But so far, in the 21st century, for the bottom 90%, debt is growing while income is stagnating.

Pew’s Fact Tank has an analysis that speaks to this problem. Average hourly earnings for non-management private-sector workers in July were $22.65, 2.7% above the average wage from a year earlier. But in the years just before the 2007-08 financial collapse, average hourly earnings often increased by around 4% year-over-year.

And during the high-inflation years of the 1970s and early 1980s, average wages commonly jumped 7%, 8% or even 9% year-over-year.

However, after adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has about the same purchasing power it did in 1978. In fact, in real terms average hourly earnings peaked more than 45 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 had the same purchasing power that $23.68 would today.

Here is Pew’s chart demonstrating the problem:

Because there’s been little growth in wages, the growth in the standard of living for those below the 90th percentile has been largely fueled by additional consumer debt. The WSJ reports that consumer debt, including credit cards, auto and student loans and personal loans, is on pace to top $4 trillion in 2019, the highest in history. Debt allows you to furnish your home, pay for education, and get a car without having to save for them. In that way, it supports the growing economy.

But Pew also shows how most of the income gains went to those at the top of the food chain:

 

 

Among people in the top 10th of the distribution, real wages have risen a cumulative 15.7%, to $2,112 a week – nearly five times the usual weekly earnings of the bottom tenth ($426).

This lack of symmetrical growth in debt and income actually matters. At some point household borrowers will default in greater numbers than they do today. When those losses occur, the monetary system won’t be able to bail out debtors (or banks) this time around as handily as we did in 2008.

 

Sluggish and uneven wage growth is a key factor behind widening income inequality in the US. Another Pew Research Center report found that in 2016, Americans in the top tenth of the income distribution earned 8.7 times as much as Americans in the bottom tenth ($109,578 versus $12,523).

Compare that to 1970, when the top 10th earned 6.9 times as much as the bottom 10th ($63,512 versus $9,212).

There is no simple solution to get American workers back on the right track. At a minimum, it will take a political groundswell aimed at overturning the way the tax code favors corporations. Along the way we will have to displace the political power of our corporate oligarchs.

Government must be made to serve the public interest, not Mr. Market.

Democracy is the sole mechanism enabling our citizens to have political and economic agency. But, democracy will cease to matter in a corporate-controlled, globalized system of government influence.

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The Kids Are All Right

The Daily Escape:

Autumn in Larch Valley, Banff National Park, Alberta CN – 2008 photo by Andy Simonds

For the past few days, Wrongo has been writing about both ideas and people that could help to shape a reform of American capitalism.

We’ve talked about Bernie Sanders, Richard Murphy, Alan Curtis and Alexi Yurchak, and the Yellow Vests in France. Today, let’s focus on America’s youth, at least some of them:

More than 1,000 young people and allies flooded the Capitol Hill hallways and offices of Democratic representatives to demand that elected officials listen to their youngest constituents—as well as some of the world’s top scientists—and back the bold proposal to shift the US to a zero-carbon energy system by 2050 in order to save the planet from an irreversible climate catastrophe.

The protesters were mostly members of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, 800 of whom had attended a training on lobbying members of Congress and their staffers the previous evening. They carried signs reading, “Do Your Job,” “Back the Deal,” and “No More Excuses“. Here is a picture of them in the halls of Congress:

Before you get all crazy about the (apparently) professionally-made signs, here’s a web site where you can easily make them. More from Common Dreams:

Many also wore T-shirts emblazoned with the following message: “We have a right to good jobs and a livable future,” two key components of the Green New Deal, which would create 10 million jobs in the first decade by putting Americans to work building a green energy infrastructure…

At least 143 of the demonstrators were arrested as they lobbied in 50 congressional offices. But, they had an impact. The number of Democratic lawmakers now supporting a Select Committee on a Green New Deal has now reached 31, twelve of whom signed on this week. How it came together reveals how the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), will use its growing membership.

The Caucus agreed with incumbent members who were willing to have a select committee so long as actual lawmaking authority remained in existing committees.

This wasn’t all due just to the kids. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has spent the past few weeks wrangling support for the Green New Deal as well. The outcome was the result of a collaboration between the CPC leaders, Ocasio-Cortez, and the Sunrise Movement.

Wrongo doesn’t know if a Green New Deal is a good idea or not, but much of the message will resonate with voters. Who will be against “good jobs and a livable future”?

And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is showing that she has really good political instincts.

We should be happy that these kids are speaking from their hearts. They are practicing for when they will need the strength to fight the hard political battles of their generation. But, why aren’t we seeing a million parents fighting alongside their kids?

We also should remember how undervalued kids are in America: We under fund their schools. We are providing only low-wage service economy jobs for most of them when they grow up. We hardly care whether they are covered under a health insurance plan. We take them from their parents at the border.

No wonder they are learning to act, since we, their guardians, seem unwilling to act for them.

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Tax Abatements Are Killing School Budgets

The Daily Escape:

Egmont National Park, NZ – photo by vicarious_NZ

A new report shows that US public schools in 28 states lost at least $1.8 billion in tax revenues last year as a result of tax incentives granted to corporations. The study analyzed the financial reports of 5,600 of the nation’s 13,500 independent public school districts.

Good Jobs First examined the first full year of reporting under a new accounting standard for school districts, adopted by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB), the body that sets accounting rules for all states and most localities. The new rule, GASB Statement No. 77 on Tax Abatement Disclosures, requires most state and local governments to report annually on the amount of revenue they’ve lost to corporate tax abatements.

This is extremely important, since most local schools are very dependent on revenue from property taxes, but they rarely have influence over corporate tax abatements granted by their towns, and/or the cities or counties where they are located.

And local voters have had no way to see how much they are forced to pay in additional taxes that were lost to enrich the pockets of corporate employers.

Good Jobs found that the 10 most affected states could have hired more than 28,000 new teachers if they were able to use the lost revenues. Or, they could have avoided higher home property taxes, or provided their teachers with better resources, or higher pay.

States and cities have long used abatements and other tax incentives to lure companies, or to keep them from leaving, and/or to encourage them to expand locally. Often, those companies make their choice of location based on the quality of local schools and colleges.

These abatement deals are made by local politicians and are meant to boost local economic development. Their proponents say the lost tax revenue is worth it, because they grow the local economy. But it is difficult to know whether the benefits outweigh the burdens.

And until GASB 77, it has been impossible to see just how much a school system may have lost because of a company’s tax break. The new rule is especially helpful in understanding local schools finances, because it requires the reporting of revenue losses even if they are suffered passively by the school system as the result of decisions made by another body of government.

Of the five districts that lost the most, three are in Louisiana. Together, they lost more than $158 million, or $2,500 for each student enrolled. The School District of Philadelphia, which only last year regained local control from the state after climbing out of a deep fiscal crisis, lost the second most revenue at $62 million.

Overall, nearly 250 school districts lost at least $1 million each, and in four districts, tax abatements reduced classroom resources by more than $50 million.

But most school districts have not yet complied with Rule 77, which was implemented in 2015. Good Jobs First estimates that another $500 million of subsidies and abatements are currently unreported.

Most of us believe that our governments are supposed to govern in the interests of the “general welfare,” that when voters put people in positions of power, based on the legitimacy of our electoral process, is the limit of our responsibility as voters.

We accept that somebody has to say what the rules are, and then enforce them.

But in our neoliberal economic times, voters have to remember that our governments often act as wholly owned subsidiaries of the 1%. It takes suspension of belief to accept that our republic, ruled as it is by an oligarchy, is working for the general welfare of all of our citizens.

Why do we think that, our “governments”, all of which are subject to capture and ownership by the few, are going to somehow provide decency, comity, or fairness to all of us?

We need to abandon the article of faith that the free market, one without government oversight, promotes the best economic outcome for all of us.

Today’s inequality says the opposite.

We need a new vision of the role of government. But it isn’t really a “new” vision. It is simply a return to insisting on the “promotion of the General Welfare for all” as the paramount object of government.

Here’s another thought from Gordon Wood, in his book, Creation of the American Republic:

In a republic each individual gives up all private interest that is not consistent with the general good, the interest of the whole body. For the republican patriots of 1776 the commonweal was all encompassing—a transcendent object with a unique moral worth that made partial considerations fade into insignificance.

The last outcome that American revolutionaries wanted was to be ruled by oligarchs. But, here we are.

We need to reform our capitalism.

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We’re Too Short to be on This Ride

The Daily Escape:

Lion’s Head, Capetown South Africa, viewed from Tabletop Mountain – 2012 photo by Wrongo

A WaPo report said that Donald Trump discussed giving Janet Yellen another term as head of the Federal Reserve, but was concerned that she was too short. He thought that at 5 feet, 3 inches, she just wasn’t tall enough to get the job done.

Wrongo thinks Yellen’s performance was about the same as her predecessor, Ben Bernanke, and her successor, Jerome Powell. Shouldn’t the real question be: Do we know what’s wrong with our economy, and do we have people in place with enough strength and/or courage to fix it? They can also be short, as long as they have ability and vision.

And it isn’t only in the US: (brackets by Wrongo)

Income inequality has increased in nearly all regions of the world over the past four decades, according to the World Inequality Report 2018. Since 1980, the global top 1% of earners have…[garnered] twice as much of the global growth as have the poorest 50%.

More from the World Inequality Report: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Such acute economic imbalances can lead to political, economic, and social catastrophes if they are not properly monitored and addressed….Governments need to do more to keep society fair…Public services, taxation, social safety nets – all of these have a role to play.

We’re seeing a slow-rolling social catastrophe in the US. We’re seeing alienation across class, race, age and gender. We’re divided as never before, with the possible exception of the pre-Civil War period.

Aren’t we all too short to be on this ride?

Central banks play an integral part in the global economy, and their performance (including the Fed’s) during the 2008 Great Recession was for the most part, admirable.

But central banks can only use monetary policy to partially solve issues of economic inequality. The most robust solutions lie in fiscal policy. Fiscal policy is how Congress and other elected officials influence the economy using spending, taxation and regulation.

Take student loans. Many of our university students are simply being led to the debt gallows. Currently, 44.5 million student loan borrowers in the US owe a total of $1.5 trillion. Student loans are the fastest growing segment of US household debt, seeing almost 157% growth since the Great Recession.

From Bloomberg:

Student loans are being issued at unprecedented rates as more American students pursue higher education. But the cost of tuition at both private and public institutions is touching all-time highs, while interest rates on student loans are also rising. Students are spending more time working instead of studying. (Some 85% of current students now work paid jobs while enrolled.)

Student loan debt has the highest “over 90 days” delinquency rate of all household debt. More than 10% of student borrowers are at least 90 days delinquent. Mortgages and auto loans have a 1.1% and 4% 90-day delinquency rate, respectively,

And if the student loan can’t be repaid, it isn’t expunged by bankruptcy. In fact, students can’t outlive their debt. The feds can garnish social security payments to repay a student’s outstanding debt.

As young adults struggle to pay back their loans, they’re forced to make financial choices that create a drag on the economy. Student debt has delayed marriages. It has led to a decline in home ownership. Sixteen percent of young workers aged 25 to 35 lived with their parents in 2017, up 4% from 10 years earlier.

We are only beginning to understand the social costs of our politics. We are in the midst of a brewing social disaster. And these are self-inflicted wounds, fixable with different government policies. But, most of today’s politicians are too short to get on that ride.

So, how to solve the simultaneous equations of high poverty rates, income inequality and an impending social disaster?

It won’t be easy, and it starts with politicians admitting that our economy doesn’t work for everyone, and that it must be reformed. Then, we can move beyond the tired rallying cries of “more tax cuts” to a capitalism which incorporates a social consciousness that can get people on the track to better paying, and more secure jobs.

An April 2018 study of survey data from 16 European countries found that economic deprivation increased right-wing populist tendencies. Sam van Noort, a co-author of the report said:

Individuals who “feel economically less well-off” were more likely to be attracted by the far right…and radical right respondents are more likely to be male, subjectively poorer, less educated [and] younger.

This will also happen here, unless the voters have determination, and even the short politicians have courage.

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Monday Wake Up Call – August 13, 2018

(Wrongo will be taking the next few days off. He has blog fatigue, and also needs to work on some deferred maintenance here on the fields of Wrong. He’ll be back later this week, unless events require him to jump back in sooner.)

The Daily Escape:

Abandoned house, Wasco, OR – 2018 photo by Shaun Peterson.

We wake up today to Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece’s, review of “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crisis Changed the World” by Adam Tooze posted in The Guardian. Tooze is an economic historian at Columbia University in NYC.

This isn’t a review of Tooze’s book, which sounds fascinating. Rather, it’s a meditation on one of Varoufakis’s ideas in his review of the book. Varoufakis says: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Every so often, humanity manages genuinely to surprise itself. Events to which we had previously assigned zero probability push us into what the ancient Greeks referred to as aporia: intense bafflement urgently demanding a new model of the world we live in. The financial crash of 2008 was such a moment. Suddenly the world ceased to make sense in terms of what, a few weeks before, passed as conventional wisdom – even McDonald’s, for goodness sake, could not secure an overdraft from Bank of America!

Tooze focuses on the causes of the Great Recession in 2008, and the implications for our 10-year long economic recovery. He observes that neoliberalism’s mantra about markets had to be shelved to save the US economy: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Whereas since the 1970s the incessant mantra of the spokespeople of the financial industry had been free markets and light touch regulation, what they were now demanding was the mobilization of all of the resources of the state to save society’s financial infrastructure from a threat of systemic implosion, a threat they likened to a military emergency.

We have no idea where the current aporia will take us, particularly since this “moment” has already lasted 10 years, and the hard-won economic progress may be easily reversed. Varoufakis continues:

Moments of aporia produce collective efforts to respond to our bewilderment. In the late 18th century, the pains of the Industrial Revolution begat free-market economics. The crisis of 1848 brought us the Marxist tradition. The great depression produced both Keynes’s General Theory and Friedman’s monetarism.

We are clearly at a point of intense bewilderment. What direction is correct for our economy and our society? The concept of aporia may explain why no real solutions have emerged in the past 10 years.

Tooze thinks that the world economy today is at a similar point to where it was in 1914. That is, we’re headed to a global war based on the competition of the advanced economies for resources (this time, it’s markets, water and energy), while the Middle East is at war, competing to determine which variant of Islam will be transcendent.

Varoufakis thinks we are more likely to be where we were in 1930, just after the crash. Since 2008, like back then, income inequality has continued to grow, and we have a potential fascist movement in the wings. Varoufakis asks if today’s politicians have the vision, or the ability, to corral corporatist power on one side, and the emerging nationalist movement on the other.

We’re into the post-2008 world, one in which the owners of society, the largest corporations along with the international capitalists, portray austerity as our only answer. They stress the need for continued globalization and the upward transfer of wealth via tax cuts as the best chance to survive and prosper after the 2008 crash.

This is global capitalism at work: Continuing to extract all the wealth that it can in every economy with a compliant government.

People are getting near a breaking point. They want a better life, and they want to regain political control. The challenge for capitalists and their politicians is: Can they continue to distract the base, keeping them compliant with corporatism and the financialization of our capital markets?

Capitalism ought to fear nationalism, because a nationalist movement could easily rally the poor and the middle class against Wall Street and corporate America. But, for the moment, capitalism seems to be stirring the nationalist pot. To what end?

Whether a fight against Wall Street and Corporatism will emerge, whether it will evolve into a fascist-style rallying cry remains to be seen.

We’re too early in this iteration of aporia to know or to see where we are going clearly. We need an alternative to today’s global capitalism because the track we’re on could easily turn the world into a gigantic Easter Island-like landscape.

What alternative to today’s capitalism (if any) will develop? Will ordinary people have some say in the alternative?

Stay tuned.

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Saturday Soother – July 28, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Quote by John Maynard Keynes posted on the wall at the School of Economics, St. Petersburg State University, Russia – 2018 photo by Conor Morrissey

Welcome to the weekend. US GDP hit 4.1% for the second quarter of 2018. Trump was out there on Friday saying that the economic winning has only just begun, and that it’s due to the GOP tax cuts, and his moves to impose tariffs on our trading partners. He neglects to mention this year’s $1 trillion budget deficit that he and the GOP created. That’s what’s fueling our current growth, and it won’t last.

Speaking of tariffs, NPR reports that US ham and other pork products now face very high Chinese tariffs of between 62% and 70% after retaliatory tariffs by China. What happened next shouldn’t be surprising:

In recent weeks, the US Department of Agriculture has reported zero weekly export sales of pork to China….So our exports to the country have pretty much collapsed.

Does this mean cheaper bacon for America? As we have heard, “Trade wars are good and easy to win”. Apparently, the Stable Genius can bring home the bacon, but he can’t sell it abroad. Thoughts and prayers to all the pork producers who got conned.

US farm subsidies were about $23 billion last year. A year ago, the Trump administration proposed a $4.8 billion cut to that. Now he’s increasing the subsidy by a one-time $12 billion to make up for the effects of his tariffs.

OTOH, in the EU, farm subsidies for the 2021-2027 period are scheduled to be reduced by five percent to $420 billion. Maybe there will be some additional winning for our farmers, assuming we can export more to the EU. But the US isn’t above criticism: US dairy producers now have a whopping 1.39 billion-pound surplus of cheese; 4.6 pounds per American. Wrongo is doing his part to cut into the surplus, what about the rest of you?

And at the same time there is overproduction, there’s growing risk to our health due to overuse of antibiotics on dairy farms. America shouldn’t give up its food security and become dependent on other countries, but it’s time for clear(er) thinking about our agricultural policy.

The big news on Thursday night was that Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, is now saying that Trump knew beforehand about the June 2016 meeting between his top campaign staff, his son and Russians promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. If true, it would add a lot to a case of Trump obstructing justice.

We’ll see if Mueller ever makes a case in the court of justice, vs. only in the court of public opinion.

Are you fed up yet with being told “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening”? Or having Trump say that Putin is a good guy? Or, that North Korea is no longer a threat, that Canada is our enemy? Or, that some black football players hate America? Or, that immigrants are ruining everything? That our allies are out to get us, and there was no collusion!?

This takes Wrongo back to Cohen. Maybe he has the lead-up to the June meeting on tape as well.

In any event, we’ve closed the book on another hard week. Time to kick back, get soothed, and stare vacantly at all of the yard work we aren’t getting around to doing.

To help you relax, let’s open a cup of Martinez, California’s States Coffee & Mercantile’s new Reserve Cold Brew ($12/24oz. bottle). It is brewed from Tanzania beans, and is a ready-to-drink bottled black coffee. The brewer says it is richly sweet, with an umami undercurrent, and that adding whole milk mediates the umami impression, while amplifying the chocolate and spicy floral notes.

Wrongo says, go for it! Add ice and milk, and chug a couple to get your day started.

Now, settle back and listen to Ana Vidovic playing “La Catedral” by Agustín Barrios Mangoré on solo guitar. Mangoré, who died in 1944, was a Paraguayan virtuoso guitarist and composer, regarded as one of the greatest performers on the guitar. “La Catedral” is considered one of the most colorful, and difficult, works in the guitar repertoire. It is Barrios’ tribute to Bach:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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We Won’t Manage Our Water Resources

The Daily Escape:

Louvre, Paris – 2017 photo by Brotherside

Let’s leave North Korea and the G-7 for others to worry about. Wrongo suggests that you read “Crisis on the High Plains: The Loss of America’s Largest Aquifer- the Ogallala” from the University of Denver’s Water Law Review. Here’s the key section:

The Ogallala Aquifer supports an astounding one-sixth of the world’s grain produce, and it has long been an essential component of American agriculture.

This isn’t new news. There were plenty of environmental writers in the 1980’s and 1990’s highlighting the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer as the biggest single threat to world food supplies.

The Ogallala is an interconnected series of water bodies, not one single geological water body. That implies that the last drop extracted from a New Mexico well will not cause immediate drought in Nebraska. But it is still possible that catastrophic depletion could occur over a tight enough timescale to cause a major disruption of US food supplies, especially in light of climate change. Here is a map of the Ogallala that shows the depletion of water from about 1950 to 2015:

Source: USGS SIR 2017-5040

Sadly, the prospect of the US managing our water resources seems well beyond our will and ability. We also see this in California, where the aquifers in the Central Valley are being depleted by farming.

Most of the time, the primary cause of water depletion is the decision of farmers to grow crops which are unsuitable for the local climate, invariably for financial reasons. The only true solution is a long term retreat from high water demand crops grown in semi-arid areas, in favor of growing them in more suitable areas.

And who are these farmers?  We know about the corporate farms in the Midwest, but some farmers are actually foreign countries. This from NPR: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Outside of Phoenix, in the scorching Arizona desert, sits a farm that Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy uses to grow hay for cows back home. That dairy company, named Almarai, bought the farm last year and has planted thousands of acres of groundwater-guzzling alfalfa to make that hay. Saudi Arabia can’t grow its own hay anymore because those crops drained its own ancient aquifer.

More:

They got about 15 water wells when they purchased the property. Now, each one of those wells can pump about 1.5 billion gallons of water. It’s an incredible amount of water they’re going to be drawing up from that aquifer underground…

The remarkable thing about this Saudi Arabian company is that it did the same thing in Saudi until the water ran out. The aquifers they used to grow hay and alfalfa at home simply went dry, and the Saudi government told its dairy companies to start importing hay from elsewhere.

It turns out that hay yields in the desert are the best in the US. You can literally get three or four times as much hay growing in the desert because you have a very long growing season: It’s hot, so the hay dries really quickly once it’s cut. It turned out this was such a good idea, the UAE decided to buy a farm in Arizona too.

America has already given away our manufacturing capability, and thereby created the rust belt. Now, we’ve decided to “export” our water.

Saudi Arabia’s amber waves of grain. Because, “free trade.”

The Ogallala article mentions that, if everyone immediately reduced their usage by 20%, the aquifer should last another 100 years. That’s the generation of Wrongo’s great-great-grandchildren (as yet unborn).

Not much time if you think that the Ogallala has been with us for 10,000+ years.

If we believed that the water resource should belong to those who must pay to replenish and renew it, rather than to those who can monetize it most profitably, our property rights laws would have to be different.

But we don’t, and they aren’t.

Our culture is predatory.

When the spoils are eaten, there is no more. Who will we turn on then?

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Monday Wake Up Call – June 4, 2018

The Daily Escape:

The Blue Grotto, Malta – photo by SingularET. Not to be confused with THE Blue Grotto on Capri, the hangout of the Roman emperor, Tiberius.

NewdealDemocrat over at Angry Bear raised a few excellent points about historically low unemployment and stagnant wage growth: (emphasis by Wrongo)

As I noted several weeks ago, even though we are at least closing in on full employment, the percentage of employers not raising wages at all has gone up in the last year:

(The blue line is the percentage of employers who have not increased wages. The grey shaded areas are recessions.)

There was more bad news from Axios , reporting on a meeting with the Dallas Federal Reserve about how big companies aren’t planning on raising wages at all:

The message is that Americans should stop waiting for across-the-board pay hikes coinciding with higher corporate profit; to cash in, workers will need to shift to higher-skilled jobs that command more income.

Troy Taylor, CEO of the Coke franchise for Florida, said he is currently adding employees with the idea of later reducing the staff over time “as we invest in automation.” Those being hired: technically-skilled people. “It’s highly technical just being a driver,” he said.

The moderator asked the panel whether there would be broad-based wage gains again. “It’s just not going to happen,” Taylor said. The gains would go mostly to technically-skilled employees, he said. As for a general raise? “Absolutely not in my business,” he said.

John Stephens, chief financial officer at AT&T, said 20% of the company’s employees are call-center workers. He said he doesn’t need that many. In addition, he added, “I don’t need that many guys to install coaxial cables.”

The Civilian Non-Institutional Population (those who the government tracks for jobs analysis), grew 21.3% between April 2000 and April 2018, yet, full-time jobs grew only 11.7%. This means that we can’t possibly be at full employment, despite the government’s headline unemployment rate of 3.8%, the lowest since 2000.

And if most employers are thinking like those at Coke and AT&T, wages won’t increase, despite the country’s nine-year economic recovery. If wages will not be increasing, where do employers think increased demand will come from? And, if companies are freezing wages during the supposed good times, what will happen when times turn bad?

Corporate policies are designed primarily to respond to the requirements of its management and its institutional shareholders, not employees. Employers’ profits have been increasing steadily, but the wealth keeps getting transferred upwards. And it’s the employers who are responsible for layoffs, and who use other methods to increase profits, such as automation, which leave the surviving workers in an increasingly poor negotiating position when it’s time for the annual raise discussion.

Do workers “deserve” an annual increase? By performing their jobs, workers produce value for the company. If a company is profitable, workers should get a cut, and if profits go up, so should their share.

If a particular individual isn’t performing well, then in an efficient/well-managed company, they’ll be replaced. If the job itself is not structured to produce effectively, in an efficient/well-managed company, the job will change. And if the company fails to do either, then in an efficient/well-managed company, the company will change, or it will fail.

It appears that with their paltry increases, workers are losing ground. Rents are rapidly rising in most cities. Wrongo saw a story about a New York City couple who moved from Brooklyn, NYC to Westport, CT for cheaper housing. It wasn’t many years ago that Westport was substantially more expensive than Brooklyn. In fact, it was once the home town of Paul Newman and Martha Stewart.

Many workers are fighting for a 2% raise. (Remember, 2.6% is the average, which means many workers are getting less than that). Factor in the rising rents, food costs, and health care insurance, and you can see that the average hourly worker has little chance of upward mobility.

Is this an inevitable outcome caused by Mr. Market? Not really. Our government has its thumb on the scale via tax benefits to corporations, combined with a Federal minimum wage that is impossibly low.

Time to wake up, America! We must stop letting corporations hoard the profits! Capitalism is institutionalized avarice. Its purpose is concentration of power. And one outcome is the spreading of economic misery.

To help you wake up, here is the Soup Nazi who, says, “No soup for you! Come back 1 year!” Just like many employers say when hourly employees ask for a raise.

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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It’s Past Time To Make Changes To Our Economic System

The Daily Escape:

2011 Art piece by Steven Lambert

Does capitalism work for you? Well, you certainly work for capitalists. The real question is whether capitalism still provides economic security to all of us.

Steve Lambert, the artist who designed the sign, engaged with people across America over a three-year period about whether capitalism was still working. He learned that people were split about 50/50 on the premise:

People usually first react to the piece by falling back on the comfort of abstractions and repeating popular myths. For example, the true/false dilemma is much easier to resolve when the only alternatives to capitalism are presumed to be failed communist dictatorships. It’s also much easier to pretend that the only “true” definition of capitalism is the kind of free-market extreme idolized by thinkers like Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek

Or thinkers like Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. Lambert learned that people generally agreed with the concept, assuming “you are willing to work hard, or work smarter”:

I’ve always found the formulation “work hard, work smart” disturbing. When you invert the expression, it implies: if capitalism doesn’t work for you (that is, if you’re poor, out of work or have a demeaning job), it’s your fault. To put it more bluntly, you are lazy and stupid.

If we ignore the fact that until recently, wages have stagnated for decades, and that what most people earn in a lifetime is insufficient to cover a modestly comfortable retirement, maybe you can say that capitalism is working.

We have been told that federal budget deficits impair our ability to grow the economy, or to put food on our individual tables. In fact the opposite is true. This idea makes us believe that our ability to earn a living requires some degree of suffering by other Americans.

As Claire Connelly says: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“We can’t afford it” has been the proverbial comforter of opponents of the welfare state harking back to the Clinton / Blair days….This argument has been used as an emotional crutch for people who don’t want to admit that they’re comfortable with homelessness and unemployment….If their bottom line is stable.

This lie sets us against each other, implying that the well-being of everyone else is a direct threat to our own. And who wins? The beneficiaries of the newly lowered taxes, corporate America and its management teams. More from Connelly:

Do we really want to live in a world….Where most people will be lucky to earn minimum wage, or wait for months to get paid. If at all. A world where we are not entitled either to a job, or an education, or affordable health care or a social safety net?

We are likely to see a $1.3 Trillion budget pass both houses of Congress this week. It is deficit spending run wild. Wrongo knows that both parties believe that deficits don’t matter, and to a great extent, he agrees.

But these deficits are larger than they had to be, due to the massive corporate and wealthy individual tax cuts the Republican House and Senate just passed. And it’s not only the size of the deficits, it’s the mis-allocation of funds by our neo-con overlords.

This is what capitalism has delivered for America: More than 45 million of us (14.5%) live in poverty. In 2016, another 49.5 million Americans were age 65 and older, and half of them (24.75 million) had yearly income of less than $23,394.

That adds up to about 70 million (22%) of Americans.

One idea that is gaining attention is a Jobs Guarantee program. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) recently released a paper arguing for a national jobs guarantee through a national infrastructure bank. The CBPP plan envisions an infrastructure bank that would fund vital projects and ensure that jobs are well-paid. The government would use this job-creating ability to expand jobs in sectors where the market won’t currently invest, like a national high-speed internet network.

Government guarantees of employment aren’t radical. They aren’t communism, or socialism. We did it before with the New Deal. It reinforces traditional American values around work, and it builds the tax base by taxation on the jobs created. Here’s a final quote from Steve Lambert:

My favorite response to the sign was from a 17-year-old high school student in Boston. She said: “Capitalism can’t work for everyone. If it did, it wouldn’t be capitalism.”

This is where the conversation needs to go: We have to change an economic system that fails so many.

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Will Tariffs Bring Prosperity?

The Daily Escape:

Detail of art painted on a truck, Pakistan – 2017 photo by Caren Firouz. South Asian “truck art” has become a phenomenon, inspiring gallery exhibitions.

Will new tariffs help our economy? The view of a typical Trump supporter:

Some of us are happy about these tariffs because it starts a long overdue conversation about trade: Everyone knows that the press, congress, economists, and the multinationals love existing policy, and that most of them couldn’t care less about trade imbalances. If this is the only avenue our democracy has to change trade policy, then we’re all for it.

Yet, the conventional wisdom is that Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum will do more harm than good. There are several concerns. To the extent we need steel and aluminum to use in our domestic production, it will cost more, and prices will have to go up, assuming that the manufacturers are unwilling to lower their profit margins. Ultimately, those increased costs hit the American taxpayer.

Another concern is retaliation. Our trade partners can block our exports, or charge retaliatory import tariffs of their own. Just 12% of US GDP are exports, so we’re less exposed to that threat than other economies that have a larger percentage of their economies dependent on exporting. However, jobs can be easily lost if China, Brazil, or the Euro Zone block some of our exports.

Trump’s rationale for new tariffs is two-fold. First there is a national security risk caused by diminished capacity in sensitive industries. Second, good jobs will come back to America if we produce more stuff.

Let’s deal with national security first. No doubt we have surrendered some of our strengths in sensitive products and technologies. But, it’s not a critical issue for steel or aluminum. We can get them from many countries that are currently our allies.

Artificial intelligence, advanced semiconductors, and software are an entirely different matter. There are legitimate national security-based rationales for restriction in those areas.

But, we are in trouble with some of the exotic steels that the Defense Department uses in weapon systems. For example, the Belgian firm Fabrique Nationale is the prime contractor for a lot of the high end small arms. Some of these specialty steels are only manufactured in annual production lots. Trump’s tariff won’t shift the production of those exotic steels to domestic sources.

So even in the few cases in which a tariff might serve a national security purpose, the Trump tariff will fail.

And while the Chinese dump steel below cost on global markets, most others (Canada, Brazil) do not, and we buy a lot more from them than we do from China. And there is no scenario whereby Canadian steel exports are a “national security” risk, Trump’s primary rationale. And the Trumpets seemingly can’t see the difference between primary aluminum (China exports nearly none) and semi-manufactured aluminum products, such as bars, plates, and wire rod, which they export a lot.

But, don’t foreign governments subsidize their steel industry? China does. However, that means that China is essentially giving us cheap steel. The question for Trump is: Will we gain enough jobs in our domestic steel industry to outweigh the losses to us in higher prices across all industries?

Maybe, but it hasn’t worked that way in the past.

Tariffs help lazy and/or incompetent businesses. Imposing new tariffs will just put off the day when the toxic combination of bad management, lack of investment, poor infrastructure, and bad government causes these protected industries to implode.

If you are a manufacturing company that is internationally competitive and well run, how would you like it if your steel and aluminum suddenly became 25% more expensive? All to protect some other lazy SOB who hasn’t invested in his plant in 20 years?

The correct response should be to find out why your product isn’t competitive, and then fix it. Much of American industry has done that, by automating, by moving abroad for cheaper labor, or to be closer to raw materials.

Ultimately, Trump’s tariffs will just postpone the day when our uncompetitive sectors must modernize, or go under.

And that result is always a net loss of jobs.

The best think tank idea is to establish tariffs (or quotas) based on the amount industries pay their labor in foreign countries vs. what US employers pay. If the foreign country’s prices are lower, than a tariff would kick in. This would help us with US firms who manufacture overseas. They would have the choice of paying higher wages to US laborers, or paying a tariff on their imports to the US.

Trump’s message is: If you want unfettered access to the US market, make it here. If the US consumer pays more, that is a price he’s willing to take to have the manufacturing base.

This is a debate worth having.

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