Workers & Economic Inequality

Graph: Putting the Squeeze on Labor, Part II

Post by: Benjamin Landy , on February 22, 2012

Yesterday I commented on what Mark Thoma and Karl Smith both identified as one of the most significant graphs in the White House's Economic Report of the President. That graph showed how the historical post-war relationship between wages and prices—or more fundamentally, between labor and capital—has broken down over the last thirty years. You can probably guess who has gotten the short end of the stick.

Traditionally it has been the case that a competitive market prohibits businesses from raising prices too high or pushing labor costs too low, as both consumers and labor will look elsewhere for a better price. And historically, that dynamic has held: from 1947 until the mid-1980s, American wage earners accrued a proportionate share of economic output as productivity rose. But since the Reagan Revolution, corporate profits have surged while wages have flatlined, breaking the post-war trend that essentially created the American middle class.

As I argued in my previous post, the present imblanace between capital and labor is unlike anything we have experienced in two generations. A global oversupply of labor and skill-biased technological change account for much of this inequality. But we cannot ignore that laissez-faire policies have encouraged this unprecedented redistribution of wealth to the richest 0.1 percent, while diminishing social mobility for the poor. Regressive tax policies that privilege capital gains and loopholes such as the carried-interest deduction have created the conditions that allow the Forbes 400 to control as much wealth as 150 million Americans while paying an average tax rate of just 18 percent. We cannot accept that disparity as the new normal.

Tags: labor, income inequality

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