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Friday, September 18, 2015

'The Typical Male U.S. Worker Earned Less in 2014 Than in 1973'

More on income stagnation and inequality:

The typical male U.S. worker earned less in 2014 than in 1973: The median male worker who was employed year-round and full time earned less in 2014 than a similarly situated worker earned four decades ago. And those are the ones who had jobs. ...
What about women? Well, they haven’t closed the pay gap with men, but the inflation-adjusted earnings of the median female worker increased more than 30% between 1973 and 2014... But back to men. Why are wages for the typical male worker stagnating? ... I contacted Larry Katz, the Harvard University labor economist. He identified three factors to explain the stagnation of men’s wages:
1. Although this is not the major factor, workers have been getting more of their compensation in benefits as opposed to the cash wages that the Census tallies. ...
2. Labor’s share of national income has been declining since 2000 and capital’s share has been rising. Labor’s compensation (wages and benefits) has not been keeping pace with productivity growth. ...EPI’s Josh Bivens and Larry Mishel argue, “ This decoupling coincided with the passage of many policies that explicitly aimed to erode the bargaining power of low- and moderate-wage workers in the labor market.”
3. The “most important factor,” Mr. Katz says, is the rise in wage inequality, the gap between the earnings of the best-paid workers and the ones at the middle and the bottom that has been widening steadily since about 1980. Economists differ over how much of this is the result of globalization, technological change, changing social mores, and government policies, but there is no longer much dispute about the fact that inequality is increasing.
... It’s not hard to understand why so many voters ... are drawn to candidates who acknowledge this reality, lambast incumbents for not doing more to address it, and style themselves as outsiders with fresh approaches to one of the nation’s most alarming economic problems.

To me, it's interesting how much the explanation for inequality has shifted away from the "skill-biased technical change" and technological based arguments and towards "changing social mores, and government policies." Even so, I think these types of arguments -- those that explain the decline in bargaining power in wage negotiations -- have more explanatory power than many people acknowledge. But even if we acknowledge that we aren't sure about the degree to which inequality can be explained by market-based versus institutional structure arguments, what seems clear to me is that the market won't solve this problem by itself. There do not appear to be forces within capitalism that necessarily push us toward an equal distribution of income. Thus, there is no assurance that heeding calls for government to get out of the way would help to reduce inequality, and it could make it worse. To me, policies that increase the ability of workers to bargain for a fair share of what they produce holds the most promise for solving the inequality problem (in a way that avoids direct redistribution). How to actually accomplish this is a difficult problem, unions have less power in a world where the threat of moving production to another country is very real (or a region within the US where the laws are more favorable), but at the very least we ought to ensure that new legislation does not make the highly unequal wage bargaining problem any worse (see Scott Walker).

    Posted by on Friday, September 18, 2015 at 12:32 PM in Economics, Income Distribution | Permalink  Comments (66)


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