(Feb 11) On Tuesday, February 12, 2013, President Obama will give his State of the Union address. Previews from the media in recent days indicate he will talk about job creation and the problem of income stagnation for the middle class. Neither of these issues—jobs and income—have been seriously addressed for more than five years since the start of the recent recession in December 2007. More than 20 million workers remain jobless and real income for middle class families has fallen, and continues to fall, for the past five years according various measures.
It is rumored Obama will call for a massive increase in Free Trade, specifically for a pacific-wide free trade agreement, the ‘Trans Pacific Partnership’ agreement that his representatives have been working on already for more than a year. Also in the works is a parallel Free Trade agreement with the entire European Union. If passed, these agreements will result in millions more lost jobs—not new jobs—and will make the more than 5 million jobs already lost to NAFTA free trade and China preferred trade pale in comparison. But it will be passed off as a ‘job creator’.
With regard to domestic job creation, it is rumored he will call for business to invest more in the US in order to create jobs here. It is not likely, however, the President will bother to mention the more than $2 trillion in cash US corporations are sitting on—or distributing to their stockholders to the tune of $500 billion last year—instead of creating jobs. Nor is it likely the President will mention that, according to latest Wall St. Journal surveys, big businesses plan to increase investment in 2013 by a mere 2%, down from 8% in 2012 and 20% in 2011. He will exhort them to do something more about investing and job creation, without saying what he himself will do if Business continues to sit on its massive cash hoard and lower investment still further.
The reason most frequently given by CEOs for not investing more in the US is that US consumers aren’t buying enough. True enough. Except for the wealthiest 10% households, median family consumer spending is lagging badly. Most of median household spending that is occurring is spending on credit—credit cards, installment loans, student loans—or spending from depletion of savings to cover escalating healthcare costs. Consumer spending based on real income gains is just not happening for the middle class. And that picture is about to get seriously worse very quickly in coming weeks, given the recent run-up in gas prices that will almost certainly exceed $5 a gallon this spring.
But Obama will talk about the need for income gains for the middle class, while remaining short on the specifics how that will occur; he’ll talk about the need for more jobs without offering specific programs except for more job-destroying free trade agreements. And while he’ll reference the key problem of falling real middle class incomes, specific solutions he plans will be conspicuously absent.
How important is the fact of stagnating and/or declining middle class incomes? The following are some of the more salient facts about income inequality trends in the US in recent decades and years; why those trends are growing worse; and why that inequality is a major factor in the now stagnating once again US economy and recovery.
The Wealthiest 1% Households Historic Income Gains
The dominant characteristic of the US economy today—and a fundamental cause of the faltering, stop-go economic recovery in the U.S. since 2009—is the long term and continuing growth of income inequality in America.
That inequality is most dramatically represented by the growth in the share of national income by the wealthiest 1% of households, on the one hand, and the decline in the share of national income for the bottom 80% and remaining 110 million plus US households, on the other—i.e. between those earning an average of $593,000 a year (top 1%) and those earning less than $118,000 a year (bottom 80%) with a median annual income of around $50,000.
With average annual incomes of $593,000 a year today, the wealthiest 1% of households in the U.S.—approximately 750,000 out of a total of more than 150 million families in the U.S.—receive about 24% of all income generated in the US every year, according to Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz. That’s up from only 8% of total income in 1979. That’s a tripling of the wealthiest 1%’s annual share of total income over the last three decades since Ronald Reagan took office. Not since 1928, when the wealthiest 1% share of income reached 22%, has income inequality been as extreme as today. And income inequality continues to grow worse at an accelerating rate.
According to studies of IRS data by University of California economist, Emmanuel Saez, and others, during the Clinton years, 1993-2000, the wealthiest 1% households captured 45% of all the increase in US income growth. During the George W. Bush years, 2000-2008, they captured 65%. And in the latest year of available data, 2010, they captured 93%. So the top 1% recovered quickly from the recession. So did their corporations, from which the same 1% households obtain more than 90% of all their income in the form of capital gains, dividends, interest, rents, and other forms of ‘capital incomes’.
Corporate Profits and the 1%
Profits are the major conduit through which the wealthiest 1% incomes grow, redistributed to stockowners, bondholders, and senior executive managers in the form of capital incomes like capital gains, dividends, interest, rents, etc. And Corporate Profits have done extremely well the past three decades, since 2001 in particular, and especially since the Great Recession of 2007-09.
After three years of recession, by 2011 corporate profits in the US were higher than even in 2007 just before the Great Recession began, rising at the fastest rate in 31 years during the recession and immediately after in 2010-11.
Averaging an annual rate of increase of about 10% from 1948-2007, Pre-Tax Corporate profits virtually doubled from their recession 2008 low-point of $971 billion to $1.876 trillion by March 2011 less than a year and a half later—i.e. a level 28% higher than even their 2007 pre-recession record high of $1.460 trillion.
A subset of the $1.876 trillion, i.e. profits of the 500 largest US corporations, rose 243% in 2009-10 according to the Wall St. Journal. That’s 243% after averaging 10% a year during 1998-2007. Moreover, that 243% does not include profits of multinational US corporations hidden and sheltered in their offshore subsidiaries, which in 2012 were estimated at more than $1.4 trillion.
This record gain in pre-tax corporate profits since the onset of the economic crisis in 2007-08 was achieved not from the increased sale of goods and services, but from record profit margins from cost-cutting operations—i.e. by cutting jobs, by reducing wages, benefits, and hours of work, and by productivity gains pocketed by management and not shared with their workers. Profit margins since 2008, i.e. profits as a percent of operating costs, by 2011 thus attained the highest levels in more than 80 years.
Just as cost-cutting at the direct expense of workers has been the main factor in generating record pre-tax corporate profits, so too have Corporate After-Tax profitssurged as a consequence of massive corporate tax cutting by governments at all levels, Federal as well as State and Local.
Major corporate tax cut legislation in 2004-05, new rules allowing faster depreciation write-offs (a form of tax cut), and disregard of enforcing the foreign profits tax under George W. Bush all resulted in a further surge in corporate after-tax profits in Bush’s second term, 2004-08. That was followed by hundreds of billions more in business tax cuts at the Federal level under Bush and Obama from 2008 through 2012.
State and local government taxes on business since 2008 have been falling especially fast, as a December 1, 2012 feature article by Louis Story in the New York Times abundantly pointed out. That article estimated the cost of business tax cuts to by State and Local governments at no less than an additional $70 billion a year not represented in the above profits figures.
As a result of the continuing corporate tax cuts since 2008 at all levels of government, Corporate After-Tax profits recovered even faster during the recent recession than did pre-tax corporate profits. From a 2008 low-point of $746 billion, in less than 18 months from the recession low, after tax profits rose to $1.454 trillion—i.e. a level of 47% higher than even their 2007 pre-recession record of $989 billion. In other words, after tax profits recovered twice as fast as pre-tax profits as a direct consequence of government business tax cutting during the recent recession.
Corporate cost cutting at the direct expense of labor resulted in record corporate pre-tax profits during the last decade and especially since 2008. Three decades of corporate tax cutting—intensifying since 2001 and continuing through the recent recession—resulted in even greater after-tax profit gains. But as corporate tax cutting has intensified so too has the cutting of taxes on recipients of capital incomes—i.e. capital gains, dividends, interest, rents, etc.
The Personal Income Tax has concurrently been reduced for the wealthiest 1% households, enabling the ‘pass through’ of ever larger magnitudes of corporate after-tax profits to the wealthiest 1% and permitting that 1% to retain ever greater amounts of those distributed corporate profits as a result of accompanying reductions in the personal income tax.
The reductions in the Personal Income Tax have occurred in various forms: the lowering of the top marginal tax rates, the raising of the income threshold at which the top marginal rates would apply, the reducing of capital gains and dividends tax rates even faster than for other forms of income of the wealthiest 1%, introduction of new forms of interest income taxed at lowest rates (e.g. carried interest), the IRS benign neglect of offshore tax sheltering by the wealthy, the proliferation of countless income tax loopholes benefiting the wealthy too numerous to recount.
The outcome has been the shift in income to the top 1%, from 8% in 1979 to the estimated 24% share of national income in 2012, and the accelerating accrual of all income gains by the top 1% noted previously in the opening paragraphs of this essay.
Income Decline for the Bottom 80%
But income inequality is a consequence not only of income shifting to the wealthiest households and their corporations. Income inequality is a ‘double edged’ sword. It is also the consequence of conditions and policies which have simultaneously reduced the real incomes of the bottom 80% households—i.e. those 110 million earning less than $118,000 annual income and most of whom earn less than $50,000—while simultaneously raising the incomes of the wealthiest and their corporations. Once again the nexus is Corporate America.
The heaviest impact has been on working class households earning annual income from $39,000 to $118,000 a year—virtually all of which is wage income—sometimes called the middle class.
According to the PEW Institute’s 2012 study, the share of total income for those households in that annual income range declined from 58% in 1983 to 45% in 2011. So what the top 1% households gained (16% share increase, from 8% to 24%), the middle class largely lost (13% share decline from 58% to 45%). In terms of wealth estimates, the middle class has lost 28% of its wealth in just the last two decades, whereas the top1% share of wealth has risen from 27% to 40%. The size of the middle class itself has declined, shrinking from 61% of adults in the US population at its peak to only 51% today.
The decline in income and wealth has been long term, increasing noticeably since 1980, accelerating since 2001, and continuing through the recent recession to the present day. Since 2008, households without a 4 year college education have been especially hard hit, with a significant -9.3% income decline at the median in less than four years. Older workers, age 55-64, and younger workers, age 25-34, have been similarly hard hit in terms of income decline; the former a -9.7% drop and latter a -8.9% drop. Even college degreed workers’ income has fallen by -5.9% since the so-called end of the recent recession in June 2009.
While some of the income decline is due to wage and benefit reductions by those who did not lose their jobs during the recent recession, much more of the relative income decline has been due to massive loss of jobs since 2007, which reached a level of 27 million at one point and still remain at 22 million after four years of so-called recovery. While more than 15 million jobs were lost, no more than 5 million have been ‘recovered’ since the recession began. Moreover, the jobs added during the recession have paid significantly less than the jobs lost, thus lowering income accordingly. According to a National Employment Law Project survey published in August 2012, 60% of the jobs lost during the recession were higher paying construction, manufacturing, and tech jobs, ranging between $13.84-$21.13 per hour. But only 22% of the jobs added since 2008 were in this range. In contrast, 21% of the jobs lost after 2008 were low paying, $7.69-$13.84, but the latter have been 58% of the jobs added during the recession. And the problem is not only short term and recession related. Since 2001, low wage jobs have grown 8.7% while higher wage jobs have decline -7.3%.
In summary, while corporate profits have continued to grow so too has the income of the top 1 wealthiest households. This has been made possible in large part at the expense of the middle and working classes, as rising corporate profits gained at workers’ expense are passed through to forms of capital incomes—the latter process accelerated by the reduction in both corporate taxation and personal income taxation for the wealthiest 1% households. The process began in earnest more than three decades ago under Reagan, continued under Clinton, accelerated under George W. Bush, and has remained under Obama during his first term. The consequence has been the growing—and accelerating—income inequality in America which is a major characteristic of the US economy in the 21st century.
But don’t expect to hear anything specific or concrete from the President how he proposes to reverse the continuing deterioration in middle class income. What he’ll likely say is you don’t have enough income because you don’t have enough education, so go out and get more and take on even more student debt. And he’ll say the way to stimulate investment and jobs is to pass more Free Trade treaties that will destroy millions more jobs. Or pass the Immigration bill, much of which is being drafted right now by big tech companies to ensure they can hire hundreds of thousands more H-1B visa workers from their offshore subsidiaries. Or propose to create ‘green’ jobs by giving the ‘greenlight’ to natural gas fracking and pipeline construction throughout the US. But none of that will solve the problem of more than 20 million still jobless, or the fact that jobs that have been created are low pay, part time, temp, non-union service jobs with little or no benefits—that is, jobs that do little to resolve the even deeper problem of stagnating middle class incomes.
Jack Rasmus is the author of the 2012 book, ‘Obama’s Economy: Recovery for the Few’. His website is: www.kyklosproductions.com. He blog at jackrasmus.com and tweets at @drjackrasmus.