Job creation is up. Unemployment is down. Wages are stagnant. And economists — well, some economists — are confused.
Tighter labor markets are supposed to give workers more bargaining power. To be sure, there are still millions of Americans who left the workforce during the recession and have yet to return; employers’ knowledge of their absence is probably holding wages down. But at the rate that new jobs are now popping up, we should, by all conventional metrics, be seeing at least some increase in Americans’ take-home pay.
And yet, we’re not. Last week, the Labor Department reported that 295,000 jobs were created in February, and official unemployment fell to its lowest rate since early 2008. Wages, however, increased by an anemic 0.1 percent. Over the previous 12 months, they increased just 2 percent. Factoring in inflation, they’ve barely increased at all. Which defies virtually every economic tenet we learned during the 20th century.
But the economy of the 21st century doesn’t work like its predecessor did. The rise of globalization and work-replacing technology has eliminated millions of middle-class jobs. Many believe that this places more of a premium than ever before on education, on increasing the level of workers’ skills. That premium is real, but it doesn’t even begin to explain our epidemic of stagnant wages. As Elise Gould of the Economic Policy Institute has shown, real wages fell for virtually every American in 2014, save only the poorest, and presumably least credentialed, workers. Wages for people at the 10th income percentile actually increased by 1.3 percent, chiefly due to minimum-wage increases enacted by cities and states. But wages for workers at the 95th percentile — presumably, those with some of the best educations – fell by 1 percent. For workers at the 90th percentile, they fell by 0.7 percent, and at the 80th, by 1 percent. So education isn’t the great explainer after all.
For a more plausible explanation, we must, as the great leaker Mark Felt once told two Post reporters, follow the money. When we do, we find that the funds corporations earmarked for their own investment, research, technology and raises during the 20th century have been redirected to shareholders in the 21st. Over the past decade, more than 90 percent of Fortune 500 corporations’ net earnings have been funneled to investors. The great shareholder shift has affected more than employees’ incomes. As Luke A. Stewart and Robert D. Atkinson noted in a 2013 report for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, business investment in equipment, software and buildings increased by just 0.5 percent per year between 2000 and 2011 — “less than a fifth that of the 1980s and less than one-tenth that of the 1990s.”
The power of major shareholders to appropriate corporate revenue has grown as the power of workers to win raise increases has dwindled — even though the actual commitment of shareholders to any one corporation has diminished. (In 1960, the average length of time an investor held a stock was eight years; today, it’s four months, and when computerized high-frequency trading is factored in, it’s 22 seconds.) The decimation of private-sector unions has flatly eliminated the ability of large numbers of U.S. workers to bargain collectively for better pay or working conditions. But the ability of financiers to threaten the jobs of corporate managers unless they fork over more cash to shareholders has greatly increased.
Facing one such challenge from an “activist investor” backed by four hedge funds, General Motors on Monday announced that it would buy back $5 billion of its shares, thereby raising the value of the remaining shares and enriching those investors as a reward for their hard work instilling fear in GM’s managers. As for GM’s assembly-line workers, their contract is up for renegotiation this year, and their union hopes to eliminate or at least diminish the two-tier pay system instituted during the auto bailout, under which every worker hired since 2009 can make no more than two-thirds of what veteran workers make, no matter how long those newer hires work at GM. But with the overall rate of unionization so low, GM’s workers don’t have the leverage that one “activist investor” has, though they make the cars while the investor makes threats.
At the root of our great pay stagnation is the appropriation by major investors of the funds that used to go to businesses’ research, modernization, expansion and workers. Full employment will certainly boost workers’ wages, but unless the power shift from workers to investors is reversed, the stagnant middle class we will always have with us.
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