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The Race to the Bottom

Working harder and making less isn’t a great deal for you, although it certainly is good for corporate profits. The ongoing pattern of stagnant pay as worker productivity increases, having raged unabated since the 1970s, now costs an average United States household $18,000 per year in lost income.

By no means a pattern limited to the U.S., the average Canadian household is short at least $10,000 per year because of pay lagging productivity gains. Wages have begun to decline in Britain, as well as elsewhere.

By now, studies demonstrating these trends risk finding themselves in the category of “the Sun will rise in the east tomorrow.” But although the Earth’s rotation is an immutable phenomenon of nature, getting screwed at the workplace need not be. For now we are, and for North Americans in particular this has gone on for more than three decades. A new study by the Economic Policy Institute, written by economist Elise Gould, reports:

“Between 1979 and 2013, productivity [in the U.S.] grew 64.9 percent, while hourly compensation of production and non-supervisory workers, who comprise over 80 percent of the private-sector workforce, grew just 8.0 percent. Productivity thus grew eight times faster than typical worker compensation.” [page 4]

As a result of that under-compensation, according to the Economic Policy Institute study:

“By 2007, the growing wedge between economy-wide average income growth and income growth of the broad middle class (households between the 20th and 80th percentiles) reduced middle-class incomes by nearly $18,000 annually. In other words, if inequality had not risen between 1979 and 2007, middle-class incomes would have been nearly $18,000 higher in 2007.” [page 3]

Might your personal finances be easier with that extra money?

Another way of conceptualizing this trend is the share of wages and salaries as a percentage of gross domestic product. Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, writing in the March 2013 edition of Monthly Review, calculate that wages and salaries constituted 53 percent of U.S. GDP at the start of the 1970s but only 44 percent in 2011. The authors, however, caution that even that statistic understates the decline in wages because it includes the salaries of chief executive officers and other high-level executives, whose compensation has risen. They write:

“Thus, although the wage share of income has sharply dropped in the U.S. economy, this decline has not been shared equally, and applies mainly to what is properly called the working class, i.e., the bottom 80 percent or so of wage and salary workers.” [page 7]

The problem is bigger than your degree

The canard that an “education gap” is responsible for rising inequality — perhaps the favorite excuse of Right-wing commentators, simply isn’t true. The Economic Policy Institute study reports real (inflation-adjusted) hourly wages for workers with a college degree has increased all of 1.6 percent from 2000 to 2013. As a result:

“[T]he gap between the wages near the top of the wage distribution and the middle … has grown much faster since 1995 than has the wage gap between those with a four-year college degree and those with a high school degree.” [page 21]

It’s not as if there is no money for raises: U.S. publicly traded companies are sitting on $5 trillion in cash, five times the total during held during the mid-1990s.

Canadian workers have fared little better. A Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives paper found that, although Canadian wages are flat since 1991, the average weekly wage would be $200 per week higher if wages had kept up with gains in productivity. That adds up to about $10,000 per year. As in the U.S., low-wage workers fared the worst, the paper said:

“After adjusting for inflation, the average provincial minimum wage has decreased from $9.14 to $7.32 between 1976 and 2006 in terms of 2006 dollars.” [page 8]

Wage decay is a more recent pattern in Britain, but wages there have suffered what the London School of Economics and Political Science calls “unprecedented falls.” A school study, lamenting that “the long US experience of stagnant real wages might be viewed as a warning sign for the UK,” found that British wage growth has lagged productivity growth for more than a decade. The study, released earlier this year, says:

“The real wages of the typical (median) worker have fallen by around 8-10% — or around 2% a year behind inflation — since 2008. Such falls have occurred across the wage distribution, generating falls in living standards for most people, with the exception of those at the very top.”

There is no returning to a Keynesian past

It’s not uncommon for those angered or depressed by the neoliberal onslaught of recent decades to advocate a return to Keynesianism. Alas, it is not so simple to do that, nor would it actually provide a solution to today’s economic crises. For one thing, it is not a matter of a leader somewhere decreeing that we shall now have neoliberalism instead of Keynesianism, or that another leader can simply reverse the policies.

The mid-20th century Keynesian moment was a product of a particular set of circumstances that can’t be repeated. The New Deal and the rising wages following World War II were the products of mass movements — communist, socialist and union — that simply do not exist today.

Mid-20th century Keynesianism depended on an industrial base and expanding markets. A repeat of history isn’t possible because the industrial base of the advanced capitalist countries has been hollowed out, transferred to low-wage developing countries, and there is almost no place remaining to which to expand. U.S. capitalists could tolerate rising wages then because of enormous export opportunities in the wake of the destruction of European and East Asian industry due to World War II and because of long pent-up domestic demand that couldn’t be fulfilled during the Great Depression and the war.

The rest of the world eventually got on its feet, increasing competition, and eventually profit rates began to come under pressure. The neoliberalism that began to take hold in the 1970s, and the accompanying financialization of the economy, were a response by capitalists to what, for them, were deteriorating conditions. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan may have ushered in the age of neoliberalism, but they were the political instruments of corporate offensives. In the U.S., neoliberalism could be said to have begun during the Carter administration, when then Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker unilaterally began to raise interest rates sky high, inducing the deep recession of the early 1980s.

We are living in very different times than the post-war years; the neoliberal offensive is the natural development of capitalism and the manic competition that mandates capitalists to grow or die. Even were it possible to bring back Keynesianism through legislation, it would at best be a temporary balm; the capitalists who are saved through such policies re-gain the power to again impose their preferred policies. There is no salvation in attempting to “stabilize” what is inherently unstable nor any realistic prospect that what is structurally unfair and unequal can be made just.

The advances that are the fruits of the 20th century’s mass movements have largely been erased, with no end to the race to the bottom. This century’s mass movements will have to aim much higher than mere reforms.

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog. He has been an activist with several groups.

 

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Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books.

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