Why America’s Two Economies Continue to Drift Apart, and Washington Isn’t Doing Anything About It
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America’s two economies are getting wider apart.
The Big Money economy is booming. According to a new Commerce Department report, third-quarter profits of American businesses rose at an annual record-breaking $1.659 trillion – besting even the boom year of 2006 (in nominal dollars). Profits have soared for seven consecutive quarters now, matching or beating their fastest pace in history.
Executive pay is linked to profits, so top pay is soaring as well.
Higher profits are also translating into the nice gains in the stock market, which is a boon to everyone with lots of financial assets.
And Wall Street is back. Bonuses on the Street are expected to rise about 5 percent this year, according to a survey by compensation consultants Johnson Associates Inc.
But nothing is trickling down to the Average Worker economy. Job growth is still anemic. At October’s rate of only 50,000 new private-sector jobs, unemployment won’t get down to pre-recession levels for twenty years. And almost half of October’s new jobs were in temporary help.
Meanwhile, the median wage is barely rising, adjusted for inflation. And the value of the major asset of most Americans – their homes – continues to drop.
Why are America’s two economies going in opposite directions? Two reasons.
First, big profits are coming from overseas sales of goods and services made abroad, not here. The world’s fastest-growing markets are China and India, whose inhabitants are eager to buy “American” products, and just as eager to work for the American companies that sell them. The U.S. market is barely moving.
Increasingly, American corporations are able to extract healthy gains from their global operations without adding much in the United States except executive talent.
Second, American businesses are boosting productivity by having U.S. employees do more work for less pay. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between the third quarter of 2009 and the third quarter of 2010, productivity rose 2.5 percent, output increased 4.1 percent, the number of hours worked was up 1.6 percent, and unit labor costs dropped by 1.9 percent.
In other words, American workers are losing even more bargaining power as a sizeable chunk of corporate profit goes into software and digital equipment that can do what people used to do – but more cheaply.
So what is Washington doing about all this?
Making the tax code more progressive so more Americans reap the benefits enjoyed by those at the top? Increasing the bargaining power of American workers? Forcing Wall Street banks to reorganize under bankruptcy mortgage loans that are dragging down the housing market? Expanding early childhood education, hiring more teachers, putting fewer kids into each classroom, and making higher education more affordable – so more working and middle-class kids can become tomorrow’s high-priced “talent”?
No. None of this. In fact, Washington is busily separating the two economies even further.
It’s extending the Bush tax cuts – the lion’s share of which go to the very wealthy; reducing the reach and rate of the estate tax; and giving corporations additional tax breaks for investing in software and equipment. Meanwhile, the states are cutting back on pre-schools, firing teachers, and yanking up tuitions and fees at public universities.
Oh, and yes, Washington is also extending unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless. Which is the least it can do, given that their ranks continue to swell.
Robert B. Reich has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He also served on President Obama's transition advisory board. His latest book is Supercapitalism.