Category Archives: purchasing power
Purchasing power is the number of goods/services that can be purchased by a consumer.
As David Autor has been documenting for the past decade, technology has been shifting the comparative value of labor in the United States to low wage jobs that are difficult to automate. Routine tasks which required middle income labor are disappearing not just in the United States, but across all OECD nations. His most recent piece for the New York Times paints a dire picture: “How Technology Wrecks the Middle Class”.
As can be expected, the consequences of this displacement of labor to low salary jobs will be lower purchasing power for US consumers. The BLS forecasts are startling. Projections for the top 20 occupational areas that will experience the largest growth in the next decade have a median salary of $31,111 a. The current median salary that BLS lists for US workers is $45,790 (source). Clearly, the trajectory for US wages is steeply downward.
For the consumer economy, this presents long term contractionary pressure. There is no indication that technology will not continue to eliminate high skill high cost labor jobs. A cycle of contracting consumer economy fueling further layoffs which in turn further constricts consumer spending will continue until an equilibrium is reached. If assaults on the minimum wage are successfully repelled, then eventually the consumer economy will end its death spiral to the level of consumption sustainable by a families of individuals being paid minimum wage.
Clearly this is not in the interest of citizens, but nor is it in the interest of businesses. The systemic problem is that while business has accurate measurement of the cost of labor, it has no way of directly measuring the benefit to their business of paying their workers well. Theoretically, they accept the proposition that businesses must continue to pay their workers well, otherwise there will be fewer consumers able to buy their product. However no company will perform this service to the economic system out of the goodness of their hearts. The current system behaves irrationally- expecting all other companies to maintain high wages, while they are free to cut their labor costs ruthlessly. Of course all other businesses behave the same way. Really, we cannot expect business managers to do otherwise. Without an empirically measurable, monetary benefit they can point to in the company’s bottom line, businesses cannot be expected to maintain payrolls in order to support US consumer purchasing power. Instead, what individual managers do in aggregate is methodically defund the US middle class. They will continue to do this while this suicidal behavior is an unfelt externality. The problem is that the full cost of eliminating jobs is not directly measurable by the business though the theoretical relationship to declining spending levels is acknowledged.
The Wage Credits solution.
Wage credits are, like Carbon credits- a mechanism that allows corporations to measure the hidden cost that presents a fundamental threat to the long term health of their business. Wage credits are issued by banks as workers cash payroll checks. An equal number of credits are issued to the business for each dollar paid to workers. The bank is required to accumulate and account for the Wage Credits just as they would cash. Wage credits are the only form of currency accepted payment of a category of tax- a “Purchasing Power Defense” (PPD) tax. Labor intensive businesses will have a surplus of Wage credits to pay their tax which is proportionate to the revenue they take in. Companies with low labor requirements but extract large amounts of wealth from consumers will not have sufficient credits to pay their tax. Their response is to buy surplus credits from labor intensive businesses, or to hire more workers.
This mechanism is intended to introduce a negative cost to business managers making downsizing, outsourcing, or automation initiatives that have unintended negative impact on the US economy. It is not prescriptive- in many cases the business may no longer be viable- but the business manager is presented with a more comprehensive cost benefit calculation that leads them to seek the optimal choice for their business and the long term health of the US economy. The mechanism has other uses which may optionally be used in some OECD countries, but its central reason for being is to arrest the cannibalization of the middle class by making the cost of its destruction immediately felt by a business that is participating in the destruction.
Those familiar with Carbon Credits can appreciate that such regimes have a weakness. Products from countries free of the regime have a competitive advantage over domestic products. Yet there are schemes for dealing with this. For example, say wage credits accompanied components in a product’s value chain. That is, say the Wage Credit must be paid as a tax only when the consumer pays for the finished product. So say wage credits were required to be transferred as part of the transactions for components in the value chain of a consumer product. Maybe the part from China is cheaper even though it has no accompanying wage credits. When the finished good gets to the Walmart buyer, the Walmart executive will not always choose the Chinese product because it has no wage credits with it- Wage credits that Walmart must accumulate to pay the federal Purchasing Power Tax.
Wage credits represent a scheme that unions and businesses must come together to support. Without some such mechanism to avert the self destructive market forces driving the defunding of the middle class, our economy will devolve to something more resembling a subsistence level third world economy. Stiglitz has pointed out that market failure is the norm rather than the exception and that there is no “invisible hand”. However this is not necessarily an argument for brute force industrial policy from central planners. We must move forward and employ the best thinking from microeconomics research- game theory and behavioral economics.
Clearly society will be forced to draw the line somewhere in defending purchasing power. The question is whether it is at the minimum wage, or at a dynamically determined middle class minimum wage. Wage credits allows the market to decide where the tradeoffs are made, and so will be superior in selecting optimal balances for particular labor activities of greatest value for particular industries.
a The median wage for new jobs forecast for 2010-2020 is $31,111. BLS Occupational Outlook 2010-2020: Most new Jobs. (link) Multiplying the number of jobs by the median wage for each occupation, the total income for these new jobs is $230 billion. Divided by the number of new jobs, (7.4 million), we arrive at a mean of $31,111.
US employees would have nearly $10,000 more in salaries if their share of GDP growth had remained the same as their share in 1970. The stark calculation of the reality of trickle down appears below. A republican once called it Voodoo economics. We are still in its trance, and we are marching off a cliff.
Let’s take a breather on the populist spin of this and focus on the economic dynamics. It is indisputable that the US has a consumer economy- since 2001, 70% of our GDP was consumer spending. Ask yourself this macro question: does it matter that $1.35 trillion dollars is being withheld from the purchasing power of US consumers? It’s not just the US farms that are drying up. Shortsighted decisions by US businesses are starving the goose that is laying golden eggs.
Here is the calculation:
- This federal reserve graph* shows that since 1970, the share of US GDP going to workers has declined from 53% to 44%. A reduction of 9%
- 9% of 2011 GDP is 1.35 trillion dollars
- There are 145.5 million employees in the US
- The 9% reduction in their salaries is $9278 per year.
Romney has deep beliefs and sincerely thinks he is God’s gift to US economics. It truly is a tragic joke.
*Graph: Compensation of Employees, Received: Wage and Salary Disbursements (A576RC1)/Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve. (link)
Does America need more Apple’s? Celebratory writers like Thomas Friedman in his book, “That Used to be Us” assert we do. These writers apparently did not notice that high tech is not labor intensive.
That has some major policy implications.
Studies show that rapid growth of high technology businesses have not led to job growth as was the case with low tech industries of the 19th and early 20th centuries. 21st century technologies tend to remove middle class jobs, not create them as MIT researcher David Autor has been pointing out (eg in this paper). There are jobs for the few highly educated workers necessary for high productivity businesses, but by definition, not enough to hire the displaced middle class workers even if they were retrained with the exact skills needed. Prior to this, such heretical statements got a person labelled a Luddite for doubting the theology that new technology always created as many jobs as it destroyed. Researchers are not so sure any more that the “Luddite fallacy” is really a fallacy after all. The Luddites may simply have been 200 years too early.
In today’s technology, just 300 employees at Twitter delver a product to 200 million users. What about high tech manufacturing? Same thing. In 2006, iPod employees in the US earned 7.5 billion in sales, but Apple paid back into the US economy barely 10% of that- $750 million in wages. (source)
While that profitability is good for Apple Shareholders, this is not so good for jobs in America. What it means is that companies can extract much more purchasing power from the economy than they return in the form of wages. Picture the purchasing power of consumers as a river. If all the companies along the river are taking more water out than they are returning, what happens?
That’s right. The river dries up. It is clear we cannot return to a housing price spiral to pump more purchasing power into the river. We need to attack the problem a different way.
At a macro level, we have a system wide market failure since businesses are not directly feeling the long term cost of refusal to return purchasing power to the Consumption river. The system incents businesses to drain the river as quickly and efficiently as possible through the wonders of high technology. Using efficiency managers like Mitt Romney, successful businesses do it with progressively fewer and fewer workers than before. (NYMag article: The Romney Economy)
We have to go beyond gimmicks like inflating credit to address this underlying mismatch between how much stuff a worker can create versus how much stuff we can possibly consume. One idea is to treat the river of purchasing power as a public resource, and that companies not be allowed to pump more water out of the river than is going in.
In order to keep businesses healthy, the consumption river levels must be maintained. They will either become regulated in this regard, or they will die from lack of consumers. So which bitter pills do we choose:
- Approach 1: Companies must retain sufficient employees to match their extraction of purchasing power. Companies are required to retain sufficient employees so that the river is resupplied with purchasing power in the form of wages. Nothing about the mechanism of enforcement is implied. This could be a self regulated “privatized” structural mechanism, or an overt governmental intervention- aka a “socialist” regulatory scheme.
- Approach 2: Redistribution. Purchasing power is extracted from companies through higher corporate taxation and returned to the economy with public sector jobs- Better pay of teachers, long term infrastructure jobs.
The trend Autor observes applies to all OECD countries. Are there other approaches for solutions to the Consumption river problem?
9-11 attacks. We were told- Just Shop.
2008 meltdown: Solution? Just Shop.
Much ink has been spent on the need to restart the consumption engine, and that difficult task is certainly necessary to restore the economy to some level of normalcy. Yet a return to our economic status prior to 2007 threatens to put us right back on a flight path that threatens to convert America into a third class nation. Prior to the 2008 fiasco, consumption spiked to unnatural highs as people used their homes as ATMs. The flood of consumer spending raised water levels to heights that obscured a multitude of sins.
Since the 1970s, income of working age men has declined. Household income has gone up slightly, but only because of the surge in women entering the workforce. So why are incomes stagnating and declining? Let’s review 3 other commonly cited factors driving income stagnation and consider the proposed solutions:
- growth in GDP wealth generated since the 90s has flowed to the top 2%, while middle class income has stagnated or falled. Is solution making the tax rates more fair: For example higher rates on the rich under the fairness argument that is easier to make money when you have money, therefore a higher rate on the wealthy is in order.
- Automation creating polarization incomes, eliminating middle class jobs. Everyone says the future is high tech- But even if there were no outsourcing, is it really helping? David Autor, an economist at MIT doesn’t think so (source- warning slow- pdf). Take Twitter. 300 employees account for $150 million in revenues in 2011. That’s a half million per employee. And it is true for high tech physical products too. For example iPod employees in the US earned 7.5 billion in sales in 2006, but Apple paid back into the US economy barely 10% of that- $750 million in wages. (source)
- Outsourcing/ Trade policy. Are we proposing protectionism? If so, history reveals a pretty bad track record for this approach. There are localization strategies that use network effects to keep jobs local, but I am not aware of anyone advocating such an industrial policy. Actually, it is rare for anyone in the US to talk about explicit government involvement in industrial policy. Something nearly all OECD countries do with the exception of the US.
The crux of the problem is that the river of purchasing power that supplies the consumption economy is being pumped dry by the export of jobs and automation and other productivity innovations. The solution to this problem must recognize that technology has finally reached the state feared by workers in the much misunderstood and short lived Luddite movement at the dawn of industrialization in the UK. This is not an expression of a phobia of technology, but a recognition that it has so magnified our power that from the production perspective of the corporation, a large portion of the work force is obsolete and irrelevant to their near term self interest. Systemically, of course they are dependent on a large worforce-consumer base but this factor is not visible to them in terms of their self interest in their measurable bottom lines. A further discussion of the metaphor of the purchasing power river may be found here. Discussion of the failure of self-interest and how Obama’s Osawatomie speech illuminates the path out of this fundamental economic blind spot may be found here.
In the late 1980s, there was a lot of hot talk among geek programmers about electronic books. Bill Gates, a fellow microcomputer nut had done well and was using the wealth to pursue the visions the early microcomputer pioneers had about how everything would be revolutionized. One of these visions was that of nonlinear writing and hypertext– an idea being popularized at the time by an enthusiastic fellow named Ted Nelson. To create electronic books would be very expensive, but in the late 1980s Gates was saying he wanted to develop the technology. I was there. Microsoft didn’t produce the Kindle or the channel to publish and sell electronic books, nor did hundreds of other companies who put out good products that incrementally pushed the envelope of what was possible. It is hard for any of the participants not to be proud of the achievement of bringing the eBook to reality.
Any honest assessment of the impact of the technology must face the fact that the ebook caused the destruction of US jobs that are unlikely to be displaced elsewhere. Am I a technophobe? Do I have any axe to grind about ebook technology? Hardly. I am not a Luddite in the conventional meaning at all. But that is how a person is labeled if they are not a devout believer in the principle that technology always creates enough new jobs to replace those destroyed. The principle is integral to the fairy tale of technological progress because without it, the rise of the machine would be a very dark horror story. Well, I am optimistic about future and do not believe this narrative has an unhappy ending. I am as techno geek as they come with a handful of patents that are incorporated into products used by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Being labeled a Luddite is not particularly frightening to me, but I do think we need to come to grips with the challenges that ubiquitous computing are posing to American workers. A huge number of them are out of work, and there are not enough open positions in high technology to employ them all. That does not have to be the case, but it will be unless the playing field is not so tilted against them.
In September 2011, there was a story about how Amazon, a beloved high tech company was mistreating its workers. This was an echo of stories that Chinese workers assembling iPods had abused their workers. This was the Allentown Amazon story It turned out to be a bit of a tempest in a teapot but the very real abuse going on at Amazon went unreported.
The story was that workers were suffering from heat in warehouses where there were some unusually hot summers, and in their defense, Amazon stated they had already been in the process of upgrading the air conditioning. Everyone hopes they were sincere and if so, the workplace is restored to a comfortable and worker friendly environment. End of story?
In the 70s were were told- such factory jobs are repetitious, mentally unchallenging and don’t pay much, so maybe it would be better if Amazon sold fewer and fewer paper books that are being shipped from the Allentown warehouse, and we are all instead bought electronic books.
Actually, that is happening. Within the last 5 years, Kindles electronic book sales have gone from the single digits to outselling print book books on Amazon. The predictions are that within the next few years, print sales will be down to 25%.
Which means Amazon will be able to close down many of those warehouses, and with them, all those $12 per hour jobs.
I know what you are saying- But- the technology is great! This means we are ecologically more sustainable. Long tail authors can get published much easier- Users have vast libraries they can search always available for reading. Yeah yeah. I spent the better part of my career getting such technology out of the labs and into the hands of consumers.
But I challenge the idea from neoclassical economists that somehow technology will create newer, better paying jobs to replace those that are eliminated. This was the case up until the mid 20th century but it is no longer so, as Bryce Covert at the Roosevelt Institute points out. In the 2000s, average wages went down for the first time in recent history, and for the 30 years before that, they had stagnated. Job growth is lopsided- only 14% in high paying jobs, and more that 50% in low paying jobs. The jobs to write the electronic book software are high paying but Amazon doesn’t need many of those guys. They mostly need people to stuff orders in UPS boxes. And the middle income jobs? those are steadily reducing, not increasing.
Why? Because such innovative companies like Amazon remove the middle men (middle class jobs) by making commerce much more efficient. Who needs stores that may or may not have exactly what you want? When you look at something will you be able to tell what others have said about it? Is it the best price? Online shopping offers all these advantages. But they put local stores out of business- and with those closures, the middle class jobs those businesses supported.
So regardless whether Amazon does upgrade their air-conditioning sufficiently, they are aggressively eliminating the sweatshop jobs.
There is hope for the middle class, but it will probably require market intervention. It will require society to recognize that for a consumption economy to work, companies cannot be allowed to remove significantly more purchasing power from the economy than they return in the form of wages and low cost products. If they continue as they have, they will dry up the consumption river and we will continue to suffer from the current economic drought in consumption.
Maybe some of the folks down at Zuccotti park or elsewhere in the Occupy Wall Street movement would like to download Lights in the Tunnel by Martin Ford. Because although Wall Street was a big part of the problems we have now- even after we get Wall Street completely fixed, we’ll still have the even larger problem of job stagnation and jobless recoveries.
It is hard to dispute the observation that the exponential growth of productivity is vastly outpacing the (at best) linear rates of increased consumption. The systemic risk to the consumption engine is a slow walk but we seem to have been going at it since the 90s as evidenced by the flat rate of job growth since then. Your book provides a thought provoking metaphor to model what is going on here- The purchasing power river has companies along its bank that are withdrawing substantially more purchasing power than are returning in the form of lower cost products and employee wages.
What if purchasing power as a public resource was managed with a market mechanism that provided disincentives for net withdrawals of purchasing power? For example, assume the yearly consumption of the average middle class family was calculated and the company does not have enough employees with the wages to balance that inflow of capital. When the imbalance becomes egregious, there is a monetary penalty- for the sake of simplicity, let’s say the penalty is a progressively higher corporate tax rate, so that at some point the business either figures out jobs for enough workers or gives up any further automation. What this does is make explicit the rule that Henry Ford intuitively grasped. The implementation is an orthogonal subject but I would think it would rely on an arms length mechanism like taxation rather than micromanaging regulation mechanisms.
I have been throwing rocks at this particular approach to see if it will collapse and I wonder if you would care to join in. Here are the objections I have posed and the responses I have to them.
Objection1: Growth relies on venture capitalists taking risks on new ideas. They won’t be as willing to take those risks if the returns are capped as this scheme proposes to do. Answer: The cap is only on the domestic river. That is we are only concerned in regulating the balance between revenues from domestic consumption versus the returned purchasing power expressed as domestic price reduction and employment of US workers. This also has the benefit of provoking the corporation to have strong plans for competing in foreign markets. Global revenues often dwarf domestic revenues, so this will provide the substantial returns for venture capitalists that is vital for a vigorous entrepreneurial environment.
Objection2: Depending on the business, the revenues could be huge, but there are substantial other costs such as research on future products 90% of which are not productized. These added costs are generally correlated with vigorous growth companies. The proposal only measures incoming purchasing power versus returned purchasing power, so keeping them in strict balance prevents revenue from getting directed towards expansion and further research, thereby retarding growth. Answer- the proposal could allow for set asides for research and expansion. These set asides would be substantial for startups. After say 5 years, the set asides are reduced to fixed amounts which may be adjusted by appeal to regulators. There is a disincentive to game the set asides (labeling other budget items as “research” or “expansion” to pump up the numbers) because to qualify for the reductions, the books on research and expansion budgets must be open to spot checks by regulators.
Objection3: If this proposal were in place since the 20s, the percent of population involved in farming would not be 2%, but closer to the 25% it was in the 30s. How do we allow for progress in the kinds of jobs we do. The proposal does not allow for justifiable job destruction. Or do we think farming really ought to be done with hoes and rakes? Answer: For farming in particular the same answer as for Objection 1. Due to substantial international sales of American farm products, This may not be a satisfactory response for other industries, and if there are no other market based responses, it might be necessary to resort to more intrusive regulatory rulemaking for specific industries.