We Must Transfer Wealth, Again
by Ben Leet
I’ll try to explain why the economy crashed and what is needed to repair it.
To understand the greatest economic shock in 80 years one has to look at the systemic problems building up over the past 30 plus years.
According to Professor Robert Pollin,
“Given the immediate calamity, it is easy to neglect that the crisis for U.S. workers began long before the recession. As of 2007 --- prior to the recession --- the average nonsupervisory worker in the U.S. earned $17.42 an hour. This figure is 11 percent below the 1972 peak of $19.34 per hour (in 2007 dollars). And this is only half the story.
The other half is that average labor productivity in the United States rose by more than 90 percent over this 34-year period of declining wages. That is, the total basket of goods and services that average U.S. workers produced in 2007 is 90 percent larger than what they could manage in 1972. The workers’ reward for producing 90 percent more goods and services in 2007 than 1973 is an 11 percent pay cut.” (Pollin, May, 2009: 1)
Over the past three decades, 1973-2007, labor productivity has increased by 90 percent. In the simplest terms an employee was creating $10 of value for every hour of work in 1973, now he creates $19 dollars of value per hour in 2007. He earns 11 percent less.
Data from The State of Working America, 2006/2007 closely tracks this conclusion; between 1973 and 2004 productivity grew by 75.7% while real average weekly earnings for non-supervisory workers went down by 6.5%. (Mishel et al, 2007: 48 and 119) These two changes increased the incomes of the owners of enterprise. As “unit labor cost” dived, profits soared, wealth accumulated at the top, investments spread overseas, and financial markets exhausted real investment opportunities and created phantom investments that eventually self-destructed. The purchasing economy could not keep up with the producing economy; it finally broke by trying.
There is much more than fairness at question in the distribution of income and wealth. Holistic sustainability (not to mention fairness) requires that high wages be maintained. Capitalism has an inherent contradiction: each enterprise requires profits for survival, and profits require sales and purchases. But purchases depend on workers’ incomes, a labor cost to enterprise. When labor costs (wages) across the entire system are reduced, consumption is reduced system-wide. This fall off of purchasers, revenues, and profits leads to systemic contraction. It should be no surprise that when your workers produce 90% more each hour and you pay them 11% less --- you are headed for disaster.
Marriner Eccles, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank during the Great Depression, the position held by Greenspan and now Bernanke, explained the cause of the 1930s depression in his 1951 memoir,
As mass production has to be accompanied by mass consumption, mass consumption, in turn, implies a distribution of wealth -- not of existing wealth, but of wealth as it is currently produced -- to provide men with buying power equal to the amount of goods and services offered by the nation's economic machinery.
Instead of achieving that kind of distribution, a giant suction pump had by 1929-30 drawn into a few hands an increasing portion of currently produced wealth. This served them as capital accumulations.
But by taking purchasing power out of the hands of mass consumers, the savers denied to themselves the kind of effective demand for their products that would justify a reinvestment of their capital accumulations in new plants.
In consequence, as in a poker game where the chips were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the other fellows could stay in the game only by borrowing. When their credit ran out, the game stopped.
(Beckoning Frontiers, by Marriner Eccles, 1951)
Our economy is very active and productive. It generates over $45,000 of value each year per human -- man, woman and child -- with a population of 305 million humans. With an average of 144 million workers working everyday of the year, workers create an annual product (GDP) worth $14.2 trillion. Each worker is producing almost $100,000 per year. Yet 67.2 percent of workers earn less than $38,000 a year, and 40.7% earn less than $24,000 per year. (Mishel, 2007: 126) And furthermore, of that 144 million daily workers only 92 million -- 64% -- are working full time. Some 36% of workers work part-time. So each full time worker can be said to create over $100,000 of value. (See U.S. Census, 1999, Occupations and Earnings)
As Professor Pollin stated, productivity went up 90% and wages fell by 11% between 1973 and 2007. The highest earning one percent of households in 1973 received less than 9% of the national income, while in 2007 they “took home” 23.5%. The top ten percent of households in 1973 received 33% of the national income, in 2007 it was 49.7%. ( Saez, 2009) According the the Brookings/Urban Institute Center for Tax Policy report the incomes of American households broke down in the following distribution, from 1st quintile (20% of households) on up to 5th quintile: 2.5%, 6.4%, 11.4%, 19.8%, 60.3%. So 60% of the households received 20.3% of the national income. (Mishel, 2007: 79) Combining the two studies, Saez and Mishel et al, the top one percent “took home” 23.5%, the bottom 60% “took home” 20.3%.
As for wealth, the top 1% of households owns 33%, the next 9 percentiles own 36.4%, the following 50 to 90th percentiles 28%, the bottom 50% own 2.5%.(Kennickell, 2004: 11)
This is the key to the economy’s troubles, and it is magnified by the credit and financial debacle of the past two years.
Over the past decade the economy has been sustained by three factors, 1) an asset bubble in the stock market, 2) an asset bubble in the housing market, and 3) a trade deficit resulting in foreign national reinvestment in U.S. treasury bonds. The imbalance in income distribution can be compared to your body putting 60% of your blood into just 20% of your vital tissues, and boycotting the rest (80%) of your body’s organs and tissues. It’s like trying to survive on a diet of pure megavitamins or pure profits with no other nourishment, you’re apt to be dead in a month. This serious addiction to profits and accumulation at the expense of wages leads to fatal intoxication. Recovery and “detox” calls for putting income and profits into the hands of the low income (non-supervisory) workers.
Let’s take a comparative look at two U.S. periods, 1947 to 1973 (26 years) compared to 1973 to 2004 (31 years). In the first 26 year period productivity grew by 103.7%, and median family income grew by 103.9%. In the second period, 31 years, productivity grew by 75.7% and median family income by 21.8%. Women and wives joined the workforce in the second period, increasing their participation from 44.7% to 59.3%. (Mishel et al, 2007: 48, 60, 233) That raised the family income. Hours worked per family increased by about 25%, which is greater than the increase in family income.
Now we’ll compare the two periods --- 1947-1973 and 1973-2007 --- in terms of income growth. Taking the dollar income of the 20th percentile income, in 1947 and comparing it with the same percentile in 1973, income grew by 96.8%. From 1973 to 2005 it grew by 10.7%. The 40th percentile: 101.3% growth vs. 17.8%. The 60th percentile: 107.1% vs. 28.2%, and the 80th percentile, 100.7% vs. 40.7%. And finally comparing the 95th percentile in those two periods, 90.7% vs. 61.5%.
Income and productivity growth matched in the 1947 to 1973 period. In the second period, as the lead theme of this essay says, productivity growth and income drop were out of balance. Income was distributed with even growth among all workers in the economy during the first period, sadly it was very uneven during the second.
Les Leopold in his book The Looting of America also concludes with similar findings.
“There are 94 million non-supervisory workers [in a labor force of 159 million] out there who are not getting their fair share of their increased productivity. An estimate for just the most current year --- one year --- of the gap between what workers should have gotten and what they actually received (in wages and benefits) is a staggering $3 trillion [in an economy generating $14.2 trillion of value] --- equivalent to about $32,000 per worker in the United States. Most of that money went instead to the investor class all over the world.” (page 16)
“In 1973 the top one percent of earners took in 8 percent of the nation’s total income. By 2006, the top 1 percent got nearly 23 percent of the pie, the highest proportion since 1929.” (page 16)
By 2007, real wages (in today’s dollars) had slid from their peak of $746 per week in 1973 to $612 per week --- an 18 percent drop. Had wages increased along with productivity, the current average real wage for non-supervisory workers would be $1,171 per week --- $60,892 per year instead of today’s average of $31,824.” (page 15)
This is a staggering fantasy. Imagine the lower earning 80% of the workforce earning $60,892 a year per worker. It sounds like the . . . 1950s? When one worker’s income was sufficient to raise a family and purchase a house. Naturally with incomes of a majority of workers almost doubling we are talking about a vastly improved quality of life for the U.S.A.
The distribution of national income between 1976 and 2007 changed markedly. In ‘76 the top 1% of households received less than 9% of income, and in ‘07 they received 23.5%, a gain of 14%. The top 10% took in 33% in ‘76 and 49.7% in ‘07, a gain of 17%. So, 14 % vs 17%; it is obvious what group made the exorbitant gains. (See Saez, 2009 and inequality.org) If today that 17% were re-allocated or redistributed among Leopold’s 94 million nonsupervisory workers (and that figure is debatable), the gain per worker would be over $25,000, somewhat less than Leopold’s $29,000 increase. The general drift though is absolutely clear.
In my opinion, this downward pressure on wages, this invisible hand or drift of poisonous gas, is squeezing the life out of the U.S. and world economy. If one wants to read more go to Low-Wage Capitalism by Fred Goldstein, Laboring Below the Line by Frank Munger, Gloves-off Economy by A Bernhardt et al, and SuperCapitalism by Robert Reich. .
This leads to an obvious solution: a return to a 90% marginal income tax on extremely high incomes as prevailed during the 1940s and 1950s (when the economy made such a stellar performance).
If we accept Eccles’ explanation for the cause of the Great Depression, what then rescued the Great Depression? So often peope say “The New Deal did not solve the Great Depression.” Robert Kuttner points out that the key to turning around the Great Depression were the federal deficits of the 1940s that went as high as 30% of GDP, which is equivalent to deficits of $4.26 trillion annually in 2009. (Kuttner, 2009) In fact, total 2009 government spending --- federal, states and local government --- do not amount to 30% of GDP.
Unemployment in 1938 rose to 18% and then dropped regularly to less than 2% during the war years of 1943, ‘44, and ‘45. Massive federal job programs for the war effort transfered wealth out of idle accounts into war bonds and then into workers’ paychecks. This was a transfer of wealth. Note: the top one percent held 44.2% of all net worth in 1929, 36.4% in 1939, and 27.1% in 1949. (inequality.org/by the numbers) This reinforces my contention that wealth was transfered to the workers. This was combined with very low consumer debt creation (few families were buying anything) and very low consumer production (as products -- bombs, bombers, battleships, destroyers, submarines, etc. -- were created to destroy property). All the same, income and wealth accumulated in the hands of workers working at full employment who for ten years had survived with 17.4% average unemployment and a drop of 29% of GDP from 1929 to 1933.
This is why today we need a federal jobs program, and an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit, a living wage for the minimum wage, a labor union Employee Free Choice Act, and Individual Development Accounts to abet savings and asset formation among low income families. We need to reduce expenses also in the areas of health, education, and housing through political policy. That would recapture the misappropriated productivity gain and the wage loss.
Our economy generates over $45,000 of value for every human in the nation, yet one of eight families buy food with food coupons, one in six cannot afford medical treatment, and one in three workers are either unemployed, under-employed or working full time for poverty level wages. (NJFAC)
Since 1983 over half the economic gains of the U.S. economy has gone to the top one percent of households. (Wolff, 2001, 23; and Saez, 2009) Wolff states, “My core results are worth repeating: more than half of the gains in wealth from 1983 to 1998 accrued to the top 1 percent of households, and more than 90 percent went to the top 20 percent. The number of millionaires doubled from 1983 to 1998, and the number of deca-millionaires quadrupled, with most of the growth in their ranks occurring after 1989.” Saez repeats in his 2009 report the same in regards to half the gains going to the top 1 percent, and between 2000-2007 65% of the economy’s gain went to this top one percent of households. The top 400 individuals have about the same net worth as the bottom 150,000,000 individuals, half the population.(extremeinequality.org)
Where does a very rich person invest when there are so few real economy growth opportunities? Finance created a gambling house of cards with labrynthian and infinitely scalable wagers, complete with billion dollar annual salaries taxed at 17% and replete with powerful political lobbying muscle. Trillions of taxpayer dollars have been spent resurrecting a financial system that orchestrated its own self-destruction. We can call it Aid to Banks with Dependent Bankers. Obama’s economic team has wasted its resources, and taxpayer money, trying to raise Lazurus from the dead, the dead financial system, instead of putting the unemployed to work. Obama has dedicated insignificant funds to a jobs program.
The financial system deserves a brief analysis in this essay. The financial system has exploded in size over the past decades. In 1970 the debt of financial corporations relative to GDP was 10 percent. Today it is 123%, or it increased by a factor of 12.3. In the same period the total debt of the country --- including debt of all governments, households, non-financial corporations and financial corporations --- increased by a factor of 2.3. Since 1989 financial corporate profits have exceeded non-financial profits. (Dowd, 2009: 123) In the short 7 years, 2000 to 2007, financial corporation debt increased by 81%. (Foster and Magdoff, 2009: 121) This was the era of CDOs and Credit Default Swaps, the topic of Leopold’s book The Looting of America. Today we have elephantiasus of the financial system. The correct size of the financial system and its debt is an open question, but smaller is most likely the best trend at this point. The idea that an unregulated insurance firm like AIG could make good on debts that exceeded the net worth of the entire country was ludicrous, and a serious dereliction - an intentional abandonment - of regulatory authority. Tax payers bought AIG for $263 billion. I’m not sure if the board of directors was replaced, or if its bondholders escaped financial damage. How many teachers, police, or civil servants would $263 billion employ? (Dowd, 2009:136)
I may have some of my facts off in this essay (but I tried to double check them all and provide detailed source citations), and some ideas may sound screwball, like transferring wealth to the low-income households, but I hope I helped to open your eyes to some of our problems that are on-going.
Currently I am reading a great report by Philip Harvey, professor at Rutgers University, titled “Learning from the New Deal.” I downloaded it from http://fullemployment.blogspot.com on December 1, 2009. He does a masterful job of explaining the New Deal’s job programs, and outlines a proposal to implement an annual $552 billion jobs program. That is about 4% of GDP. Jeff Madrick in his book The Case for Big Government advocates a program that invests an annual added 3% of GDP. Joe Persky and the Chicago Political Economy Group advocates a program costing annually $877.5 billion program (6% of GDP). These reports (except Madrick’s) are available at the above web site. I plan to research the various proposals and write a summary essay.
Madrick asserts that this 3% of GDP shift to social benefits would restructure the U.S. economy to resemble other developed nations’ economies. For decades only 13% of the U.S. economy has targeted social benefits, while other nations dedicate between 50% to 100% more of their GDP to these concerns. One can only wonder what would happen to our world if the same energy that fought World War II, when resources built destructive tools to destroy people and civilizations, could be redirected to a similarly selfless attack on social poverties.
Advocating for a jobs program Professor James Galbraith says, “And in a larger economic sense, it would be much cheaper. You’d save the cost of the dole. And you’d get three things out of it -- economic goods that the entire country could enjoy, solutions to some of our most pressing problems, and a working population that would be working, acquiring skills, getting on with life -- and no doubt happier, into the bargain.” (Galbraith, 2009)
Dowd, Douglas: Inequality and the Global Economic Crisis,
Pluto Press, 2009, New York, NY
extremeinequality.org, and inequality.org, and toomuch.org, and njfac.org
Foster, John Bellamy and Fred Magdoff: The Great Financial Crisis, Causes and Consequences, Monthly Review Press, 2009, New York, NY
Galbraith, James: “Jobs, What Can We Do?” a policy roundtable from the New American Contract Policy Paper, New America Foundation, October 18. 2009)
Kennickell, Arthur: Currents and Undercurrents, 2004, Federal Reserve Bank,
Survey of Consumer Finances
Kuttner, Robert, March 2009, “Surviving the Great Collapse,” International
Herald Tribune, quoted in Dowd, page 262
Leopold, Les, The Looting of America, 2009,Chelsea Green Publishing
Mishel et al: Mishel, Lawrence, Jared Bernstein, Sylvia Allegretto, State of Working America, 2006/2007, Cornell University, 2007,
Cornell University Press, An Economic Policy Institute book,
NJFAC: National Jobs for All Coalition, njfac.org, see web page for Bureau of
Labor Statistics on unemployment
Pollin, Robert: Standard of Living Must Be Raised, Roll Call (on web)
May 18, 2009, distributed at the Sumner Rosen Memorial Lecture,
Wolff, Edward: “Where Has All the Money Gone,” Milken Institute Report,
3rd Quarter, 2001, page