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Workers' malaise in US foreshadows wider social issues

Last updated: 13 September, 2011
Mohamed El-Erian, Reuters 16:48 IST

This weekend's Labour Day celebrations in America mark a difficult time for workers. Having experienced a multi-year decline in their share of national income, they are now suffering the brunt of the current economic malaise; and there is little to suggest that the situation will improve any time soon.

As a result, the country’s economic hardships risk morphing from pressuring specific segments of the population to undermining more general aspects of social justice.

The numbers are striking — and worrisome. Over the last 30 years, labour’s share of the national pie has declined to 44 per cent from 52 per cent, with profits growing at twice the annual rate for average wages.

The latest monthly employment report adds to the concerns. Unemployment remains very high, whether measured by the most-quoted unemployment rate (9.1 per cent), the less partial under- and un-employment rate, (16.2 per cent) or, most comprehensively, the proportion of total adults who are not working (42 per cent compared to 35 per cent 10 years ago).

The duration and composition of joblessness is very troubling. The average unemployed American has been without a job for 40 weeks, a record level, and 44 per cent of the unemployed have been out of a job for more than 26 weeks. The incidence of joblessness is severe among those lacking a college degree (11 per cent compared to 4 per cent for college graduates). For 16-19 year olds the unemployment rate is a horrible 25 per cent.

Whichever number you look at, America’s labour market problems constitute a full-blown crisis with far reaching economic, social and political consequences. If current trends continue, joblessness will become stubbornly embedded in the system and, distressingly, some of the unemployed will become unemployable. We all know that such a crisis fuels rising poverty and misery. Shelter is an issue, too, as mortgage and other debt payments are harder to meet. And credit will become even scarcer for those who are already struggling.

Regrettably, there is little to suggest that, left to its own devices, the economy would improve any time soon. It is mired in low growth and insufficient job creation; and the balance of risks is increasingly tilting toward a recession.

Since economic growth will not solve the issue, what about government action? Here, initial conditions are far from ideal. Budgets — be it state, local or federal — are generally stretched. Indeed, rather than reduce the challenges facing workers, current budgetary policies accentuate them through cuts in education, health care, emergency benefits and other social services. Meanwhile, active redistribution policies are off the table with our extremely divided Congress vehemently disagreeing on what constitutes appropriate policy responses. And the Federal Reserve is already in full policy experimentation mode, with limited durable impact on economic growth.

It is tempting to blame all this on what economists call an “exogenous factor” – a phenomenon that is outside direct societal control. The two most cited factors are globalization and technological advances. Globalisation has brought hundreds of millions of low paid workers into the global labor force, thus putting pressure on higher paid ones in advanced countries such as the US. Technological progress has allowed companies to raise productivity, helping them generate record profits with fewer employees.

Before embracing this explanation wholeheartedly, it is wise to recall Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer asking God to grant us the serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change those that can and the wisdom to know the difference.

It is not feasible to reverse either of those two phenomena (globalisation and technological advances). It is neither desirable to do so either given that, overall, they have beneficial impact on global welfare.

Think of the millions of people around the world who have been pulled out of absolute poverty and misery. Think also of the wider range of affordable goods available to consumers globally (the largest segment of which is in the US). And think of innovations that have saved lives and improved the quality of life.

Rather than try to unwind globalisation and technological progress, the challenge for the US is to adapt its labor force and its economy to these realities. Through better policy making at both the national and international levels, America should — and can — be a bigger beneficiary rather than a helpless victim. No wonder President Obama’s speech next week is so eagerly anticipated, and rightly so. While we must not underestimate the significant design and implementation difficulties facing the President, many look to him for restoring America’s economic leadership.

This involves three challenging and complex steps (especially given today’s economic, financial and political environment): propose a set of policies that decisively lift structural impediments to growth; mobilise sufficient political support to start the multi-year implementation process; and, as the data evolves, provide for timely mid-course corrections as appropriate.

Better off segments of the population may be tempted to dismiss all this as irrelevant to their particular reality. After all, they are doing well — in several cases, extremely well. But such an attitude is short-sighted. It is not just about fairness; the rich have genuine self-interest in reversing the country’s economic malaise and the worsening of income and wealth inequalities.

Whichever way you look at it, the outlook for the wealthier cannot be divorced from society as a whole. Such considerations have already led some American billionaires to react in dramatic fashion. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are among those leading the way, through both actions and words. Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, has urged companies not to wait for government policy but instead to move more aggressively to employ and produce more. Many others are doing their part, albeit in a less public fashion.

They know that national prosperity cannot, and should not, be sustained without social justice. Unlike many parts of the world, America has experienced, until now, few if any meaningful eruptions of social tensions. Yes, there have been some “flash mobs”, but they pale in comparison to what has occurred elsewhere this summer.

This is not about the comparisons out there to uprisings in Arab countries driven by a thirst for social justice. Rather, it is about what the series of unthinkables that has already occurred in several advanced countries where, facilitated by social media that lowers traditional coordination problems, more people are taking to more streets to express frustration and, in some cases, a call for greater social justice.

Britain and Greece have experienced widespread rioting. Car torching in Germany is now way too common for comfort. France, Italy and Spain have had national strikes. Israel has seen the sudden emergence of a large social movement that has taken both local politicians and worldwide observers by surprise.

This weekend, American workers will understandably temper their celebrations. Their malaise is about more than the challenging economic headwinds. It is about fundamental social issues.

America is now on the growing list of advanced countries where social cohesion is coming under increasing pressure. If left to fester through inadequate public and private sector responses, this phenomenon will damage the welfare of current and future generations. Loud alarm bells should be ringing everywhere.

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