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The new division of labor: Adding profits, subtracting workers

By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, July 30, 2010; A12

On the outside of its majestic headquarters in Washington, across the park from the White House, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently hung four giant banners that spell out exactly what it thinks is missing from the current economy: J-O-B-S.

This is a particularly Orwellian bit of political theater, given that it is the private businesses the Chamber purports to represent that eliminated 8 million jobs in 2008 and 2009 and have managed to add a scant 600,000 since then. If Chamber President Tom Donohue wants to round up those responsible for the lack of job growth in this country, all he has to do is call a meeting of his board of directors.

Although the jobs haven't returned, corporate profits surely have and, at $1.2 trillion annually, are now higher than they were at the height of the bubble. It turns out that companies have found ways to produce as much as they ever did, but with fewer workers. As a result, over the past year, output for each hour worked rose more than 6 percent, even as average hourly earnings have risen less than 2 percent. The rest of those productivity gains have gone straight to the bottom line, creating a record stash of cash on corporate balance sheets.

One would have hoped that, by this point in the recovery, businesses would have begun to use some of that cash to ramp up spending on research and development and to invest in new plants and equipment. But after falling sharply for two years, such spending has only just begun to rebound, and much of it has focused on faster-growing markets outside the United States. Some of the cash has been used to pay down debt or buy back stock. But so far the one thing businesses haven't done is hire back full-time employees, preferring instead to contract for temporary workers or increase the hours of the workers they already have.

There are lots of theories why this is happening. With consumers cutting back on debt-financed spending, cutting expenses has been the most obvious way for businesses to increase their profits. New technology and the decline of unions have surely enabled that trend, while big performance bonuses for top executives have encouraged it. And when one company does it, all the others feel compelled to follow suit. Add to that a noticeable lack of imagination and risk-taking among today's corporate executives, and you have a pretty good recipe for a jobless recovery.

The only surprise is that anyone is surprised by the lack of private-sector hiring. It is only in the world of Chamber of Commerce propaganda that businesses exist to create jobs. In the real world, businesses exist to create profits for shareholders, not jobs for workers. That's why they call it capitalism, not job-ism. There's no reason to beat up on business owners and executives simply because they're doing what the system encourages them to do.

By the same token, however, it is more than a bit hypocritical for business leaders to pin the blame on the Obama administration for their own failure to create private-sector jobs, as they have been doing lately.

This week, Princeton's Alan Blinder, a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics and a onetime adviser to John McCain's presidential campaign, released a paper laying out in simple and compelling terms how the government saved the country from another Great Depression. Using a standard econometric model, they backed out everything the government did to tame the financial crisis and stimulate the economy -- the zero interest rates and extraordinary lending by the Fed, the bailouts of the banks and the auto companies, the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the tax cuts and the infrastructure payments and the money for the states. And what they concluded is that, without these actions, the economy would now be 8 percent smaller, with 8 million fewer jobs and a federal budget deficit this year of $2 trillion rather than $1.4 trillion.

The irony is that this set of bold government initiatives that saved the country from economic catastrophe remain as unpopular today as when they were introduced.

Perhaps none was more controversial than the decision to rescue Chrysler and General Motors, using $86 billion in taxpayer funds and an expedited bankruptcy process that wiped out shareholders, brought in new executives and directors, forced creditors to take a financial haircut, closed dealerships and factories and imposed painful cuts in wages and benefits on unionized workers. It was an extraordinary and heavy-handed government intervention into the market economy that left the Treasury owning a majority of both companies. As one participant recalls, public opinion was divided among those who believed that the companies should have been allowed to die, those who believed they would never survive bankruptcy and those who believed the government would inevitably screw things up. Among the most vocal skeptics: the Chamber's Donohue.

A year later, the auto bailout is an unqualified success. The government used its leverage to force the companies to make the painful changes they should have made years before, and then backed off and let the companies run themselves without any noticeable interference.

The results, which President Obama will tout on a visit to Michigan on Friday: For the first time since 2004, GM and Chrysler, along with Ford, all reported operating profits in their U.S. businesses last quarter. The domestic auto industry added 55,000 jobs last year, ending a decade-long string of declines. Auto sector exports are up 57 percent so far this year and, thanks largely to new government regulations, the industry is moving quickly to introduce more fuel-efficient vehicles. Most surprising of all, GM and Chrysler have already repaid more than $8 billion in government loans, while GM is preparing for an initial stock offering later this year that would allow the government to recoup most, if not all, of its investment.

There was a time, not long ago, when real business leaders encouraged these kind of public-private partnerships. If the Chamber of Commerce were as interested in creating jobs as it is in promoting its free-market ideology, it would hang a new message on its columned facade for the president to see:

T-H-A-N-K-S.

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