Sunday, January 13, 2013

Slow Growth, Slow Gains

In the New York Times, two separate but related stories.  The first notes that gains in economic productivity have not been matched in gains by compensation.  The median hourly wage has increased, when adjusted for inflation, by only 4% since 1973.
For the great bulk of workers, labor’s shrinking share is even worse than the statistics show, when one considers that a sizable — and growing — chunk of overall wages goes to the top 1 percent: senior corporate executives, Wall Street professionals, Hollywood stars, pop singers and professional athletes. The share of wages going to the top 1 percent climbed to 12.9 percent in 2010, from 7.3 percent in 1979.
Some economists say it is wrong to look at just wages because other aspects of employee compensation, notably health costs, have risen. But overall employee compensation — including health and retirement benefits — has also slipped badly, falling to its lowest share of national income in more than 50 years while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share over that time.
Conservative and liberal economists agree on many of the forces that have driven the wage share down. Corporate America’s push to outsource jobs — whether call-center jobs to India or factory jobs to China — has fattened corporate earnings, while holding down wages at home. New technologies have raised productivity and profits, while enabling companies to shed workers and slice payroll. Computers have replaced workers who tabulated numbers; robots have pushed aside many factory workers. 
Elsewhere in the NYT, Annie Lowrey argues that low growth has contributed to political dysfunction:
Consider how different our politics might be today if the economy had not collapsed in 2008 and not been mired in sluggish growth ever since. A ballpark estimate suggests that if the economy were to grow one percentage point more than expected in each year over the next 10, the deficit would shrink by more than $3 trillion. That would be more than enough to set the ratio of our debt to our annual economic output on a comforting downward trajectory. Moreover, it would happen without making cuts to a single program, like Medicare or food stamps, or without raising a single dollar of additional tax revenue. Even a much smaller boost to growth — say one-tenth of a percentage point per year, or even half that — would make Congress and the White House’s burden hundreds of billions of dollars lighter. 
While I might note that growth prior to 2008 wasn't exactly supercharged, Lowrey's broader point has some merit.  We can also connect these two points: the decline of popular prosperity could also be harming the ability of the economy as a whole to grow, and this slower growth saps the vitality of government finances.

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