On Trade Unions & Inequality

This chart is pretty wow:

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Florence Jaumotte and Carolina Osorio Buitron of the International Monetary Fund have some ideas about how the correlation may have been caused:

The main channels through which labor market institutions affect income inequality are the following:

Wage dispersion: Unionization and minimum wages are usually thought to reduce inequality by helping equalize the distribution of wages, and economic research confirms this.

Unemployment: Some economists argue that while stronger unions and a higher minimum wage reduce wage inequality, they may also increase unemployment by maintaining wages above “market-clearing” levels, leading to higher gross income inequality. But the empirical support for this hypothesis is not very strong, at least within the range of institutional arrangements observed in advanced economies (see Betcherman, 2012; Baker and others, 2004; Freeman, 2000; Howell and others, 2007; OECD, 2006). For instance, in an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review of 17 studies, only 3 found a robust association between union density (or bargaining coverage) and higher overall unemployment.

Redistribution: Strong unions can induce policymakers to engage in more redistribution by mobilizing workers to vote for parties that promise to redistribute income or by leading all political parties to do so. Historically, unions have played an important role in the introduction of fundamental social and labor rights. Conversely, the weakening of unions can lead to less redistribution and higher net income inequality (that is, inequality of income after taxes and transfers).

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what has caused the major upswing in inequality since the 1980s.

Back in 2011 and 2012 my analysis tended to emphasize financialization and specifically the massive growth in credit creation that took place since the 1980s. I think this was a rather naive view to take.

I don’t think I was wrong to look at financialization. Obviously, unchecked credit creation is a plausible pathway for the rich to make themselves and their friends richer. I just think it was naive to not see financialization — like deunionization, like globalization, and like trends in housing wealth — as part of a broader pie.

My hypothesis is that what changed is that politicians decided that greed was good and that “industrial policy” was a dirty phrase. The political structures that emerged in the wake of the Great Depression and World War 2 which together greatly limited inequality — welfare states, nationalized industries, unionized workforces, constrictive financial regulations like Glass Steagall — were severely rolled back. This created an opening for the rich to get much richer very fast, which they did.

If I’m right, it would take a major political shift in the other direction to start reducing inequality.

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Debt & Obesity

The waistline bubble began to expand at just about the same time as the debt bubble:

First, it’s important emphasise that correlation is not causation — more than 99% of murderers have consumed water in the twenty four hour period preceding a murder. But it is clear that the effects of globalisation are at play in both cases (simply because globalisation has transformed the American economy) – far fewer Americans have to do physically demanding manufacturing work, and thanks to the mechanisation of agriculture and food production there are far more calories-per-American available to consume.

The interesting difference between debt and obesity is that while it is possible from historical evidence to construct a fairly coherent model linking excess outgrowth in debt with recession and depression — for example, I conjecture that a depression becomes inevitable when debt service cost growth consistently outpaces income growth  — there is no such historical evidence available for obesity, because there has never in known world history been an obesity epidemic of such proportion, so there is no way to know how the obesity bubble may burst.

To what extent do the healthcare overheads of an obesity epidemic act as a drag on economic growth? According to an estimate by the CDC, $147 billion.

How much of a drag on the real economy is supporting those who have dropped out of the labour force due to obesity-related illness like diabetes, fatigue, depression and cardiovascular illness?

Well, we know that in the years that obesity has been exploding, that the disabled proportion of the workforce has almost tripled:

That’s almost 9 million individuals receiving Federal disability — almost six million more than we would have if the number of those receiving Federal disability was proportionate to the numbers at the beginning of the Ford administration. And if each disabled worker was contributing the per-capita average of $46,546 to GDP, the US would be producing roughly $279 billion more output. Even if only half of the increase is associated with obesity (a very, very, very conservative estimate) that equates to around $140 billion of  lost output. That — especially when considered next to the healthcare costs — is a pretty big gap, and that does not even begin to consider that the obese workers not on disability tend to be associated with lowered productivity.

So to what extent has the debt acquisition been an attempt to paper over the cracks of an economy increasingly losing productivity due to obesity and obesity-related illness, and to what extent is obesity linked to the current American employment and growth weakness?

Well, we know that it is possible to blow up a huge debt bubble without a high level of obesity, because Japan has been mired in a debt-fuelled depression for the last twenty years without any associated obesity epidemic, and because the Great Depression was preceded by a huge outgrowth in debt, but no such outgrowth in obesity. And certainly, the United States lives with far greater burdens than the effects of obesity — for example, the quantifiable burden of invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan has been greater in the past decade than the quantifiable burden of growing national obesity. This is not to mention the effects of job migration, maintaining a global empire with bases in over 150 countries, and bailing out Wall Street banks. Debt has been a means to paper over the cracks of lost productivity and an American empire living far beyond the means of its productivity — but there is far more to that than just the outgrowth in obesity.

But obesity is causing a significant output loss, which by definition contributes to the wider problems.

Stagnation Nation?

It has long been my view that most of the seeds of the West’s ills were sown in the 1970s: that was the decade when Western consumerism began to be sated by Chinese imports, and Arab oil, and the decade when America cut the link between the dollar and gold sparked the first flames of the great Keynesian debasement bonfire. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were the chief architects, of all three of these innovations, and the internationalisation of the dollar as the global reserve currency.

In the 80’s, the United States’ trade balance flipped over and the U.S. became a net debtor, sending more and more dollars and debt out to the world as the free lunch got bigger and bigger. But something odd happened from the 70s onwards, as demonstrated by our graphic of the day:

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