ICE’ing Fresh Produce

Arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were up in 2017, but not as dramatically as you might think. What has increased is the visibility of these arrests and the fear that they bring. It is generally believed, without only scant evidence, that undocumented immigrants are leaving the US in large numbers. This would continue a downward trend which started in 2007.

Some people might cheer this action, but as a whole the economy probably isn’t. Undocumented workers do jobs that no one else wants to, for the most part. Their absence means that work is not being done and wages are rising rapidly in areas that have depended on cheap labor for years. There may be signs that this is accelerating and will ultimately spark a high rate of inflation and even shortages.

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Failing “Facts”

As I prepare for a seminar on economics for today’s progressive, this particular post has come back to haunt me.  It’s a bit subtle but hurts like a sledgehammer if you think about it.  The bizzy whirl of my life as I prepare to announce my plans requires a repeat – and this one is standing out.  Enjoy!

Back in the 1950s, people who studied complex things like economies felt they were making real progress. The general belief was that by understanding how it all worked we could even things out and usher in a new era of continuous prosperity that would benefit everyone.

Some of the underlying “facts” that were identified at this time have been accepted as simple truths. Growth is always good, and economic growth always flows to workers, making their lives better generation by generation. There’s only one problem lately – some of the “facts” appear to not be as true as they used to be. That means that the underpinnings of modern economic theory are all being questioned and, perhaps, if we don’t keep our eyes open the new era of prosperity will be far more elusive than anyone thought.

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Fight for $15

The fight for a $15 per hour minimum wage is the hottest issue among progressive Democrats today. There has been a lot of progress as cities including Seattle and Los Angeles have passed this as their minimum wage, as has the entire state of New York (but only for “fast food” workers, strangely). It would be a big hike from today’s $7.25 per hour, a 106% increase that swamps any previous jump. President Obama, and many Democrats, favor a smaller $12 per hour rate as something of a compromise.

But where did these numbers come from? Why are they important? What effects would a minimum wage rise have on the economy? It’s worth spending some time looking at the postwar history of the minimum wage, from 1947 to 2015, to see where we are today and what it means.

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Tax Profits, Not Labor!

Are you properly compensated for your work? As we discussed previously, between 1947 and 1973 worker’s salaries accounted for half of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). There was a solid if unspoken agreement that labor and capital split the spoils of the free market equally between them.

But what of output per worker? Is it possible that workers are slacking off and don’t deserve the same arrangement they had in the immediate Post WWII era? An analysis of productivity, or output per worker, shows some interesting trends that may point to more unspoken agreements that the various markets for capital and labor expect. These trends follow business cycles, and as such point to some important changes that are necessary as we move ahead into the next cycle in the next few years.

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Broken Social Contract

Are you better off now than you were so many years ago? It was a question first raised in the 1980 campaign, a motto used to defeat President Carter. The answer then was a rather sure “No!” and the voters responded, blaming the man in charge. But are you better off now than then? And was it fair to blame Carter or any President for the state of the economy?

A few graphs showing the state of workers in the Postwar Era (1947-today) shows how the problem persists. Sen Sanders has often said that the last 40 years have been a slow retreat for workers, and he has a point. But who is to blame?

Let’s leave blame aside for a moment and check out the numbers first.

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The “Facts” are Failing

Back in the 1950s, people who studied complex things like economies felt they were making real progress. The general belief was that by understanding how it all worked we could even things out and usher in a new era of continuous prosperity that would benefit everyone.

Some of the underlying “facts” that were identified at this time have been accepted as simple truths. Growth is always good, and economic growth always flows to workers, making their lives better generation by generation. There’s only one problem lately – some of the “facts” appear to not be as true as they used to be. That means that the underpinnings of modern economic theory are all being questioned and, perhaps, if we don’t keep our eyes open the new era of prosperity will be far more elusive than anyone thought.

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Retiring Inequality

Income inequality is one of the biggest barriers to sustained growth today.  You can’t have a consumer economy without income reasonably well distributed, and such an economy is going to have more sustained, reliable growth.  But as we’ve shown before, income inequality has grown since 1968, threatening long term growth.

Here is another way to look at that rising inequality as part of a long-term trend that defined 1968-2000 – the expansion of the workforce and subsequent collapse of that expansion that will solidify  when the Baby Boom hits retirement.  Economic changes are often demographic at heart, and we are due for some major upheaval that we need to be ready for.

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