. . . whenever I wander the halls of Washington these days, I can’t help but think that something else is going on—that a deep and wide gulf has grown between the economic hardships of Americans and the seeming incomprehension, or indifference, of courtiers in the imperial city.
Have decades of widening wealth inequality created a chattering class of reporters, pundits and lobbyists who’ve lost their connection to mainstream America? Has the collapse of the union movement removed not only labor’s political muscle but its beating heart from the consciousness of the powerful? Has this recession, which has reduced hiring more than it has increased layoffs, left the kind of people who converse with the powerful in Washington secure in their jobs and thus communicating calm while the unemployed are engulfed in panic? Are we passively watching an unrepresented underclass of the long-term unemployed created before our eyes?
"most of America appears to have deeply internalized the belief that labor lacks, and perhaps more important, ought not to have any bargaining power. This is a wonderful state of affairs for the managerial elite and investors. Having labor share in productivity gains was no impediment to growth; indeed, the record from the end of World War II through the mid-1970s versus the last two decades would suggest the reverse.
"And the argument that US labor cannot compete with China et al is overblown. In most cases of outsourcing and offshoring, the results are disappointing (a dirty secret you will find if you burrow into the literature; for instance, IT, a popular candidate, has a particularly poor record). But it also serves to reduce lower-level labor costs and INCREASE managerial costs (greater coordination required). . . . The gap between the raw labor costs [savings] and the net savings is an increase in compensation to managers (which could be either via larger bonuses or an increase in headcount). . .
"A second reason for complacency about unemployment is just as deeply rooted. There is little confidence in conventional policy remedies. . . . the real problem may be that all these approaches are past their sell-by dates, helpful around the margin but insufficient to provide lasting relief to our current malaise. We may be at the end of a paradigm. The US and its trade partners have engaged in a 30 year experiment of deregulation, financial liberalization, more open trade, and deep integration of markets. But most other countries had clear objectives: they wanted to protect their labor markets, which usually entailed running a trade surplus (or at least not a deficit). Many of them also had clear industrial policies. By contrast, the US pretended it was adhering to a “free markets” dogma so that whatever resulted from this experiment was virtuous. But in fact, we have had stagnant real worker wages, with a rising standard of living coming from rising household borrowings and to a much lesser degree, falling technology prices. We have also had industrial policy by default. Certain favored groups, such as Big Pharma and the sugar lobby, get special breaks.
"And who has been the biggest beneficiary of our stealth industrial policy? The financial services industry. How many Treasury Secretaries have lobbied for more open financial markets with major trade partners? Has any other industry seen as extensive a reduction in regulations? And we’ve had first the Greenspan, now the Bernanke put, with the financial services well aware that the Fed will run to the rescue of the markets (ie the banksters) should any serious trouble arise, but the resulting low rates work to the detriment of savers, and push all investors to take undue risks to compensate for artificially low yields.
"So the inaction over unemployment is yet another symptom of deep seated rot in the body politic."