Republicans like to tout the strong economy as a sign that their conservative, free market philosophy still works and that they are still “the party of ideas.” Indeed, with foreign policy and the war in Iraq in shambles, their economic success is all they’ve really got.
Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that ain’t a whole lot. In fact, there are a couple of pieces of just plain rotten news about the economy today.
First, according to former Georgetown economics professor, Alfred Tella, writing in today’s Washington Times, there is a discrepancy between the rosy unemployment numbers that we’ve gotten and what may be a real and troubling trend toward higher unemployment. He writes here:
According to Tella, the real rate of unemployed Americans may be closer to 4.9% or higher.
“Nonfarm payroll employment perked up in May, rising a respectable 157,000, about twice as much as in April. Since the end of 2006, payroll jobs, as measured by the government's employer survey, are up 664,000. The unemployment rate was unchanged in May, and at 4.5 percent, was the same as last December.
In contrast, total employment as measured by household survey (a more comprehensive count that includes the self-employed, agricultural, private household and unpaid family workers, and workers on unpaid leave) has been stagnant so far this year -- a puzzling inconsistency. In the three prior years, both employment series were on a generally rising trend.
You see, the unemployment rate just measures those out of work who are currently looking for a job. But in a bad job market many people get discouraged and stop looking and then they are no longer counted. So a lower rate may not necessarily mean that the country is at full employment or that every able bodied American who wants to work has a job. It could just mean they couldn’t find a job and gave up. It also could mean that while they have dropped out of the labor market they are doing menial chores or “consulting,” i.e., picking up small, piece meal jobs that bring in some income but could hardly be considered real employment. And, of course, people who are consulting don’t have health benefits or pension plans. Consulting is sometimes genuinely lucrative and attractive to entrepreneurial types. But lots of times it’s merely a face saving term for folks just scrapping by after being laid off. But those folks don’t count as part of the unemployment rate.
So on paper the economy looks like it’s stronger than it is. Indeed, what we have is a paper pushers’ good economy. Investors push around paper profits but our country doesn’t manufacture much. CEOs, corporations and large investors are doing fine; but since not much is produced here, workers are losing ground every day.
And there’s more economic bad news on the doorstep today too.
According to this piece in today’s Wall Street Journal (sorry, you gotta pay - they're capitalists), productivity is down significantly and that raises fears amongst both economist and the Federal Reserve about inflation. Here’s the Wall Street Journal quote from Mark Whitehouse:
“New evidence that American companies are having a hard time keeping labor costs under control raised worries about a pickup in inflation, sending stocks tumbling. The Labor Department reported that the sum nonfarm businesses pay their workers for each unit of production rose at an annualized rate of 1.8% in the first quarter, sharply exceeding its initial estimate of 0.6%. The jump in so-called unit labor costs stemmed from a combination of factors: sharper compensation growth, which was revised upward to 2.8% from 2.3%, and lower growth in productivity -- or output per hour -- which was revised down to 1% from 1.7%.”Of course, what’s bad for one segment of the economy isn’t necessarily grim news for another. While productivity is down, wage growth is up
I’ve been arguing for years that the old formula that higher productivity eventually produces higher wages is wrong. It used to be true that higher productivity led to higher profits, which employers passed on to their workers. The reason for this was that demand for the company's goods grew so they needed more workers to produce more widgets (or whatever it was they manufactured). But that’s not been true for a long time. Instead, higher productivity has been fueled by technology and automation and to a lesser, but significant extent, by outsourcing and off shoring. Because of those factors, even as productivity and profits climbed there was little demand for new workers to produce more goods and services.
Even higher productivity doesn’t eliminate the law of supply and demand. In the “new economy” the demand for labor is lower because of efficiencies that make the production of goods cheaper and less labor intensive, so corporations don’t have to share their profits with workers. Bosses never pass on their profits in the form of wage hikes simply out of the goodness of their heart or out of a sense of noblesse oblige. If businesses don’t have to hire more staff to meet rising demand for their goods, the demand for labor doesn’t rise. And with automation and off shoring, the demand for workers won’t rise even as consumer demand for their goods does. So companies get to keep their profits and they don’t have to share or play nice with workers. That includes not having to provide decent health benefits or pensions to compete for employees.
The only time bosses give raises or offer decent benefits is when they have to do so to retain their workforce. If they don’t need that workforce, then wages will stagnate no matter how high corporate profits climb.
The Washington Post, bless their little free trader hearts, never got that part right. Their business writers spent most of the last seven years assuring readers that higher productivity would trickle down to workers and raise their salaries. Now, though, the Wall Street Journal, a far better business publication that actually understands economics, tells the truth with this explanation:
“While strong growth in jobs and wages is good for workers, it raises the possibility that companies, unable to offset higher labor costs by increasing productivity, will try to pass those costs along to consumers, a trend that could fuel inflation and prompt the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates in response. "Even if economic growth is not gangbusters, the Fed could end up with an inflation problem," said Stephen Stanley, chief economist at RBS Greenwich Capital in Greenwich, Conn.And therein lies the problem. What’s good for workers – higher wages – is bad, not only for business but for investors, because it cuts into profit. Of course, one could question why exorbitant pay and extravagant perks for CEOs doesn’t affect the bottom line or push inflation pressure upward. That, for some reason, seems a reasonable investment in talent. CEOs, basketball stars, and coked out starlets all appear to have "talent" that make them valuable commodities on the free market.
On the other hand, the educators who teach your kids, the cops who protect your life and limb, and the guy who sacks your groceries don’t have value in the marketplace, even though they contribute immeasurably more to your life.
So much for the wisdom of unfettered markets and other ideologies that don't match the reality on the ground.
Meanwhile, look for investors and business types to push the panic button and try to slow growth, especially wage growth in order to put a break on inflation. That’s just one more proof that the interests of the average wage earner are not the same as their boss’s interests. And one more sorry example that the good times passed the American worker by. All those years when the corporate profits were rolling in and CEOs were living extravagantly never trickled down. Only the economic downturns trickle down to workers. It is the bitter fruit of a free market economy indeed.