Suppose the economy recovers but everyone still feels lousy.
It could happen. In fact, it’s happening right now.
Our current recovery, alas, is different from all previous recoveries that America has experienced since the end of World War II. The earlier ones were marked by wage increases. As the economy picked up and more revenue started flowing to business, those businesses shared the revenue with their employees. Mark Whitehouse of the Wall Street Journal looked at how businesses were dividing up the pie 18 months into every previous recovery since 1947 and found that 58 percent of their increases in productivity trickled down to their workers in increased wages.
This time around, the numbers are starkly different. Productivity increased 5.2 percent from the recovery’s start in mid-2009 to the end of 2010, he found, but wages rose by a minuscule 0.3 percent. That means just 6 percent of productivity gains have gone to our newly more-productive workers.
Where is the other 94 percent going? To profits, which have been increasing at a record clip for the past three quarters. To funds on the corporations’ balance sheets, which the Federal Reserve calculates at nearly $2 trillion. To shareholders. To the companies’ stock buybacks.
Indeed, many of the nation’s leading corporations have been spending more money buying their own shares than they have on job-creating investments, research and development, or higher wages. In the first three quarters of 2010, according to Standard & Poor’s, companies’ purchases of their own shares came to $212 billion — an increase of 80 percent, 221 percent and 128 percent for each of those quarters over the corresponding three-month periods in 2009.
The jobs that businesses have been creating, moreover, aren’t anything to write home about. They pay significantly less than the jobs that have been lost. According to research from the National Employment Law Project, as of January, 40 percent of the jobs lost in the recession came from higher-wage industries but just 14 percent of the jobs created during the recovery were in those industries. Lower-wage industries, where jobs paid on average less than $15 an hour, accounted for 23 percent of the jobs lost but fully 49 percent of newly created ones. Among the industries that grew in 2010, the top three occupations were retail sales clerks, cashiers and food preparers; each has a median hourly wage of less than $10.
It’s one thing for a nation to be downwardly mobile during a recession. It’s quite another to be downwardly mobile during a recovery — but that looks to be precisely what’s happening.
Why the difference between this recovery and its predecessors? For one thing, it’s happening at a time when almost the entire private-sector workforce is nonunion — 93.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the highest level of nonunion employment since some time in the 19th century, before such record-keeping began. Absent unions, workers are dependent entirely on management’s willingness to share their increased revenue with their employees. And absent unions, apparently, no such willingness exists.
We didn’t arrive at this predicament accidentally. Since the early 1980s, when General Electric’s widely admired chief executive, Jack Welch, declared that the primary goal of the corporation was to increase shareholder value, America’s corporate managers have been faithfully rewarded for treating their employees as necessary — or unnecessary — evils, to be shed whenever possible, or replaced by foreign or temporary workers, and most certainly not allowed to form unions or receive wage increases. Thirty years later, this form of shareholder capitalism has swept the field of nearly all opposition, with results — chiefly, the eclipse of the decent-paying job — that grow more glaring with each passing day.
The decline in good jobs may well be a factor in the sentiment toward worker rights that’s emerged since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker declared war on his state’s public employees. A number of polls conducted since the conflict emerged have shown that, by a two-to-one margin, the American people support public employees’ right to bargain collectively — a response that pleasantly surprised many longtime union supporters and that has emboldened them to plan recall campaigns against Walker and kindred union-bashers.
But the decline in good jobs also complicates President Obama’s reelection prospects. Economic recoveries have always been good news for presidents seeking another term. But a recovery in which relatively few Americans share in the bounty is something new under the electoral sun. When shareholder capitalism triumphs, neither workers nor voters feel notably upbeat. Incumbents — the president most especially — beware.