Posts Tagged ‘Profits and wages’

Overcoming the Iron Law of Wages

September 4, 2013

EPI-low-wage-workers-reality-8-28-2013-2-54-01.pngOne of the arguments against raising the minimum wage is that employers won’t hire people if the wage is higher than the value of the employee’s work.

Obviously this principle is true.  In fact, an employer will not hire someone unless the wage is less than the value of the employee’s work to the employer.  Otherwise the employer would make no profit.

Under conditions of economic competition, there is pressure to keep wages as low as possible.  This is especially true for franchise and subcontract businesses, when the franchisers and the buyers have the economic power to squeeze their profit margins as low as possible.

Workers have no power, as separate individuals, to prevent wages from being forced down to subsistence level.   There’s a name for this process, the Iron Law of Wages, which was formulated by the economist David Ricardo 300 years ago.

The reason that, contrary to Ricardo, wages have risen over the century is that sometimes skilled workers are scarce and command a higher wage,  sometimes workers have been able to organize unions and bargain collectively, and sometimes governments have set minimum wages to limit how far wages can be pushed down.

Certain libertarians and free-market theorists oppose a role for government or even for labor unions.  They say wages should be negotiated between free individuals.  When an individual business owner is hiring an individual worker, that may make sense.

When a worker is up against a powerful collective organization, such as a corporation, then the worker needs something to equalize bargaining power.   And in the case of fast-food franchises, workers are not up against the individual business owners.  They are up against the corporations that set the terms for the franchisees.   A higher federal minimum wage would change the equation.

(more…)

Return on investment (of labor) is falling

July 11, 2013

blog_nelp_wage_declines

The United States officially has been in economic recovery in 2009.  Economic output, as measured by Gross Domestic Product, is up.  Corporate profits are up.  The stock market has reached new highs.  So, according to the law of supply and demand, wages should be rising, too.  Right?  Wrong.

Economics writer Felix Salmon has the figures.

NELP, the National Employment Law Project, has taken a detailed look at what happened to wages during the recovery — specifically, between 2009 and 2012.  They looked at the annual Occupational and Employment Statistics for three years — 2007, 2009 and 2012 — and created a list of wages for 785 different occupations.  They then split those occupations into five quintiles, according to income; the lowest quintile made $9.49/hr, on average, last year, while the highest quintile averaged $40.23/hr.  […]

The big-picture lesson that NELP draws is that between 2009 and 2012, real median hourly wages fell by 2.8% — and that the poorer you were to start with, the more your wages fell.  The top quintile didn’t do well: their wages dropped by 1.8%, in real terms.  But the fourth quintile did particularly badly: its wages fell by 4.1%, on average. 

To take one example, occupation 39-5012 — that’s Hairdressers, Hairstylists, and Cosmetologists — was earning $12.00 an hour, in 2012 dollars, in 2009.  But by 2012 they were earning just $10.91 per hour: a drop of more than 9%. 

Or look at occupation 51-6042 (“Shoe Machine Operators and Tenders”): that job saw wages fall 14%, in real terms, in just three years, with nominal wages falling from $12.69 to $11.69 per hour.

The charts show the large range of outcomes: some occupations are doing great.  At the top end, the highest-paid profession on the list, Psychiatrists, went from earning $69.48 per hour in 2007, to $83.33 per hour in 2012.  That’s a real increase of 8.3%.  But overall, everybody is doing pretty badly.

So what’s going on?

20120314-graph-the-1-percents-jobless-recovery-01

Click on Wage deflation charts of the day for Felix Salmon’s full article.

Click on The 1 Percent’s Jobless Recovery for the Century Foundation’s article.

Why wages are falling (British version)

June 21, 2013
Rising profits, declining wages in Great Britain

Rising profits share, declining wages share in Great Britain

A British blogger reports that the same thing is going on in Britain as in the USA.

Back in the 70s and 80s, bosses could often not efficiently monitor their workers. To keep pilfering and skiving within tolerable limits they therefore had to pay better than market-clearing wages, to buy goodwill.  The upshot was that wages rose even during downturns, because bosses feared that real wage cuts would create discontent and thus increase thieving, insubordination and malingering.

This led to a huge literature in economics on efficiency wages, gift exchange and insider-outsiders, which tried to explain high and sticky real wages.

However, as Frederick Guy and Peter Skott have shown, socio-technical change since the 80s such as CCTV, containerization and computerized stock control has made it easier for bosses to monitor workers.  Direct oversight means they don’t need to worry about buying workers’ goodwill.  They are instead using the Charles Colson strategy: “When you’ve got ’em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

Years ago, firms wanted smaller but motivated workforces.  Now they can control workers directly, they don’t need to worry so much about motivation except, of course for top-level managers who cannot be directly monitored – hence their rising incomes.

All this has three implications:

1. Talk of “wage rage” misses an important point.  At the point of production – to use a quaint Marxian phrase – there is little meaningful rage, because workers can do little to fight falling real wages.  (This poses the danger that such rage will find perhaps misdirected political expression, such as in antipathy towards immigrants.)

2. Issues of industrial organization – how firms are organized – have important macroeconomic effects. Macroeconomics cannot be easily studied separately from industrial organization.   Economists need to look inside the “black box” of industrial structure.

3. You cannot understand economics without understanding power.  The fact is that bosses’ power has risen and (many) workers’ power has declined. In this sense, the rising incomes of the 1% and the fall in real wages for the average worker are two manifestations of the same process.

Click on Stumbling and Mumbling for the original.  Hat tip to Avedon’s Sideshow.

Click on The Market Oracle for the source of the chart.

A wage crisis, not just a jobs crisis

July 29, 2011

Michael Cembalest, chief investment officer for J.P. Morgan Chase, says corporate profits are high largely because the wages of American workers are at a 50-year low relative to the size of the U.S. economy and to corporate sales.  From his point of view, corporate profits are what matters, but he thinks they rest on a shaky economy.  Hence the title of his report: Twilight of the Gods.

Here’s a summary of his report by Harold Meyerson in The Washington Post.

Michael Cembalest, the chief investment officer of J.P. Morgan Chase, … asserted in the July 11 edition of Eye on the Market, the bank’s regular report to its private banking clients, that “U.S. labor compensation is now at a 50-year low relative to both company sales and US GDP.”

Click to view

The primary subject of Cembalest’s report isn’t wages. It’s profits — specifically, the fact that profit margins (the share of a company’s revenue that goes to profits) of the Standard & Poor’s 500 companies are at their highest levels since the mid-1960s, despite the burdens of health-care costs, environmental compliance and other regulations that are presumably weighing down these large companies.

“There are a lot of moving parts in the margin equation,” Cembalest writes, but “reductions in wages and benefits explain the majority of the net improvement in margins.”  This decline in wages and benefits, Cembalest calculates, is responsible for about 75 percent of the increase in our major corporations’ profit margins.

Or, to state this more simply, profits are up because wages are down. That’s not the only reason profits are up — innovation and offshoring factor in as well — but among the reasons, it’s a doozy.

(more…)