Reprinted from Robert Reich Blog
For the past quarter-century I've offered in articles, books, and lectures an explanation for why average working people in advanced nations like the United States have failed to gain ground and are under increasing economic stress: Put simply, globalization and technological change have made most of us less competitive. The tasks we used to do can now be done more cheaply by lower-paid workers abroad or by computer-driven machines.
My solution -- and I'm hardly alone in suggesting this -- has been an activist government that raises taxes on the wealthy, invests the proceeds in excellent schools and other means people need to become more productive, and redistributes to the needy. These recommendations have been vigorously opposed by those who believe the economy will function better for everyone if government is smaller and if taxes and redistributions are curtailed.
While the explanation I offered a quarter-century ago for what has happened is still relevant -- indeed, it has become the standard, widely accepted explanation -- I've come to believe it overlooks a critically important phenomenon: the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite that has been able to influence the rules by which the economy runs. And the governmental solutions I have propounded, while I believe them still useful, are in some ways beside the point because they take insufficient account of the government's more basic role in setting the rules of the economic game.
Worse yet, the ensuing debate over the merits of the "free market" versus an activist government has diverted attention from how the market has come to be organized differently from the way it was a half-century ago, why its current organization is failing to deliver the widely shared prosperity it delivered then, and what the basic rules of the market should be. It has allowed America to cling to the meritocratic tautology that individuals are paid what they're "worth" in the market, without examining the legal and political institutions that define the market. The tautology is easily confused for a moral claim that people deserve what they are paid. Yet this claim has meaning only if the legal and political institutions defining the market are morally justifiable.
Most fundamentally, the standard explanation for what has happened ignores power. As such, it lures the unsuspecting into thinking nothing can or should be done to alter what people are paid because the market has decreed it.
The standard explanation has allowed some to argue, for example, that the median wage of the bottom 90 percent -- which for the first 30 years after World War II rose in tandem with productivity -- has stagnated for the last 30 years, even as productivity has continued to rise, because middle-income workers are worth less than they were before new software technologies and globalization made many of their old jobs redundant. They therefore have to settle for lower wages and less security. If they want better jobs, they need more education and better skills. So hath the market decreed.
Yet this market view cannot be the whole story because it fails to account for much of what we have experienced. For one thing, it doesn't clarify why the transformation occurred so suddenly. The divergence between productivity gains and the median wage began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then took off. Yet globalization and technological change did not suddenly arrive at America's doorstep in those years. What else began happening then?
Nor can the standard explanation account for why other advanced economies facing similar forces of globalization and technological change did not succumb to them as readily as the United States. By 2011, the median income in Germany, for example, was rising faster than it was in the United States, and Germany's richest 1 percent took home about 11 percent of total income, before taxes, while America's richest 1 percent took home more than 17 percent. Why have globalization and technological change widened inequality in the United States to a much greater degree?
Nor can the standard explanation account for why the compensation packages of the top executives of big companies soared from an average of 20 times that of the typical worker 40 years ago to almost 300 times. Or why the denizens of Wall Street, who in the 1950s and 1960s earned comparatively modest sums, are now paid tens or hundreds of millions annually. Are they really "worth" that much more now than they were worth then?
Finally and perhaps most significantly, the market explanation cannot account for the decline in wages of recent college graduates. If the market explanation were accurate, college graduates would command higher wages in line with their greater productivity. After all, a college education was supposed to boost personal incomes and maintain American prosperity.
To be sure, young people with college degrees have continued to do better than people without them. In 2013, Americans with four-year college degrees earned 98 percent more per hour on average than people without a college degree. That was a bigger advantage than the 89 percent premium that college graduates earned relative to non-graduates five years before, and the 64 percent advantage they held in the early 1980s.
But since 2000, the real average hourly wages of young college graduates have dropped. The entry-level wages of female college graduates have dropped by more than 8 percent, and male graduates by more than 6.5 percent. To state it another way, while a college education has become a prerequisite for joining the middle class, it is no longer a sure means for gaining ground once admitted to it. That's largely because the middle class's share of the total economic pie continues to shrink, while the share going to the top continues to grow.
A deeper understanding of what has happened to American incomes over the last 25 years requires an examination of changes in the organization of the market. These changes stem from a dramatic increase in the political power of large corporations and Wall Street to change the rules of the market in ways that have enhanced their profitability, while reducing the share of economic gains going to the majority of Americans.