On March 25, 2015, Noah Smith writes on Bloomberg View:
Perhaps the biggest question in American political economy right now is why middle-class wages have been falling. There are three main hypotheses. Roughly, these are: Robots, unions and China.
The robots theory gets by far the most play in the news media, since it’s by far the scariest — if automation is replacing big chunks of the human workforce, things are only going to get worse as robots become more capable and efficient. This interpretation has tentatively been embraced by many on the political right, since it doesn’t imply a need for substantial government intervention in the economy (though it might imply a need for redistribution). The unions theory is favored by the political left, since it implies that giving more institutional power to this traditional liberal power bloc would shift the distribution of national income toward workers.
Neither side really wants to blame China. The right generally represents business interests and capital owners who have made a lot of money off of China, and hope to make a lot more. The left is afraid to go against the free-trade orthodoxy that has dominated postwar American economic thinking, and also fears a potential cold war with China.
But there’s just one problem: The evidence may point to least favored answer being the right one.
A new National Bureau of Economic Research paper by economists Avraham Ebenstein, Ann Harrison and Margaret McMillan examines the impact of offshoring to China. They compare industries and occupations based on their exposure to Chinese offshoring after China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001. They find that when exposure is greater, wage declines are much bigger. They also find that competition from Chinese imports affects wages, but to a much smaller degree.
Another paper, by economists Michael Elsby, Bart Hobijn and Aysegul Sahin looks at the China story from a different angle. They ask why the share of income going to labor has decreased in the U. S. They examine two variants of the robots story and also the unions story, and find that these explain only a small part of the decline in the labor share. But when they look at industries exposed to imports, they find that import competition is responsible for most of the variation in the payroll share of value added. Our biggest new source of imports, of course, has been China.
And then there is the famous 2013 paper by economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, entitled “The China Syndrome: Local Labor Market Effects of Import Competition in the United States.” They compare areas of the U.S. based on how exposed they were to Chinese import competition from 1990 to 2007. Their abstract states their conclusion in no uncertain terms:
Rising imports cause higher unemployment, lower labor force participation, and reduced wages in local labor markets that house import competing manufacturing industries…[I]mport competition explains one-quarter of the contemporaneous aggregate decline in US manufacturing employment.
In other words, there is a growing body of research showing that globalization — and, in particular, the rise of China — has been the biggest factor hollowing out the American middle class. Naturally, supporters of the robots explanation have challenged some of this research, but the papers keep piling up.
Meanwhile, the robots hypothesis is also starting to get serious pushback on other fronts. Celebrity economist Larry Summers, who has expressed concern over the possibility of automation replacing human jobs, has hedged his bets. He points out that productivity hasn’t surged as fast as one might expect from a robot revolution. He also notes that if robots were replacing humans, we’d expect to see a temporary boom in human labor, since people would be needed to build and install the robots. We haven’t seen that. Although Summersstill believes robots are a factor, he points out some reasons to be skeptical of the story.
So if the U.S. middle class has been gutted because of China instead of robots or de-unionization, what do we do? Reshoring initiatives are becoming popular, but so far they have had limited effect. Trade barriers against China are unlikely to do much, since offshoring investment will just shift to other low-wage countries — as it is already doing as Chinese wages rise. And the globalization cat is already out of the bag — now that markets and supply chains are global, walling off American industry will probably just cut American companies out of fast-growing global markets, and lead to slower growth in the U.S.
The only solution to the problem of globalization may be to wait. Chinese wages have risen a lot, and only India is big enough to take China’s place. As global economic convergence proceeds, the U.S. will look more attractive as an investment destination, and reshoring will increase. That isn’t an answer that people want to hear, but it may be the right one.
This transition should surprise no one who is conscious and who has even causally observed the constant shift to non-human productive inputs in the manufacturing, distribution, and sale of products, as well as the delivery of services, that has been occurring during their lifetime. The first burst of this phenomena was the Industrial Revolution. But now we are in an age of technology sophistication that is permeating every sector of industry and our day-to-day lives. For a glimpse into today’s technology see “How It’s Made,” which airs on the Discovery Science Channel.
One would have to be blind not to come to an awaken understanding, but unbelievably, economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich made a statement recently regarding Amazon’s decision to employ 15,000+ robots in its fulfillment centers: “PS: Here’s who’s filling your Amazon orders (if you’re using Amazon). Amazon now has over 15,000 of these robots at its ‘fulfillment’ centers and is planning far more. It’s also making plans to replace its drivers with commercial drones. But once Amazon (and every other company) replaces their employees with robots, who’s going to buy their stuff? Robots?”
Reich, as is evidently Noah Smith, the author of this article, is totally oblivious to the concept of broadened, universal individual OWNERSHIP of the capital assets––”robots, machines, automation, computerization”––that are replacing the need for labor workers. This is occurring even in China at a rapid pace in those industries that are shifting production from a labor intensive reliance to a capital intensive reliance. Companies globally are striving to minimize marginal costs, the cost of producing an additional unit of a good, product or service once a business has its fixed costs in place, in order to stay competitive with other companies racing to stay competitive through technological invention and innovation. Reducing marginal costs enables businesses to increase profits, offer goods, products and services at a lower price (which people as consumers seek), or both.
Progressive businessmen and businesswomen understand that technological change makes physical capital ever more productive. Corporate decision makers know this, whether in the United States or China, or anywhere organized assemblies of people engage in production. Technology is an easier and faster way to get a job done. Because technology increases the profitability of companies throughout the world, technology always has the advantage over human labor when the costs of them are the same. But because this is not well understood, what we as a society have been doing is to continually shift the work burden from people labor to real physical capital while distributing the earning capacity of physical capital’s work (via capital ownership of stock in corporations) to non-owners through taxpayer-funded make-work job creation, minimum wage requirements, and redistributive welfare programs. Such policies do not function effectively.
Those who can only see earning income through a job (and through redistributed earnings of others) totally ignore the fact that the reason that rich people are rich is because they are OWNERS of wealth-creating, income-producing capital assets (such as the “15,000 robots”). It is wealth inequality that is the core problem. If we really want to abate wealth inequality, then the objective should be to empower EVERY child, woman and man (citizens) to acquire individual ownership shares in the FUTURE capital asset growth of the economy using insured, interest-free pure capital credit loans repayable out of the FUTURE earnings generated by the project investments in our nation’s economic growth. This would create a new source of income tied directly to the tectonic shifts in the technologies of production that are replacing the need for humans with non-human physical capital, and simultaneously create unprecedented double-digit economic growth with plentiful employment opportunities necessary to building a FUTURE economy within the United States that can support general affluence for EVERY citizen.
There’s nothing new about machines replacing people, but the rate of replacement is exponential and the result is that productivity gains lead to more wealth for the OWNERS of the non-human factor of production increasingly doing the actual work. But for others, who have always been dependent on jobs as their source of income, there has been wage stagnation or a steady decline to poverty-level labor incomes, underemployment and unemployment, not withstanding global outsourcing.
What must be understood (which unfortunately is not understood by conventional economists) is that there are two independent factors of production––human or labor workers and non-human or physical productive capital. Fundamentally, economic value is created through human and non-human contributions.
Also what needs to be understood is that human productivity has not advanced (our human abilities are limited by physical strength and brain power––and relatively constant), but that the productiveness of the non-human factor of production––productive capital––is the reason that private sector corporations, majority owned by the “1 percent,” are utilizing the non-human factor of production increasingly to create efficiencies and save labor and other costs. It is the function of technology to save labor from toil and to enable us to do things that otherwise is humanly impossible without non-human input. The critical question becomes who should own productive capital? The issue of OWNERSHIP is unbelievably overlooked by those in academia and politics. Yet we live in a country founded upon private property rights.
But what about China, the place where all the manufacturing jobs are supposedly going? True, China has added manufacturing jobs over the past 15 years. But now it is beginning its shift to super-robotic automation. Foxconn, which manufactures the iPhone and many other consumer electronics and is China’s largest private employer, has plans to install over one million manufacturing robots within three years. Thus, in reality off-shoring of manufacturing will eventually be replaced by human-intelligent super-robotic automation.
The pursuit for lower and lower cost production that relies on slave wage labor will eventually run out of places to chase. Eventually, “rich” countries, whose productive capital capability is owned by its citizens (though presently concentrated), will be forced to “re-shore” manufacturing capacity, and result in ever-cheaper “robotic” manufacturing.
“The era we’re in is one in which the scope of tasks that can be automated is increasing rapidly, and in areas where we used to think those were our best skills, things that require thinking,” says David Autor, a labor economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Businesses are spending more on technology now because they spent so little during the Great Recession. Yet total capital expenditures are still barely running ahead of replacement costs. “Most of the investment we’re seeing is simply replacing worn-out stuff,” says economist Paul Ashworth of Capital Economics.
Yet, while the problem is one that no one can no longer ignore, the solution also is one starring them in the face but they just can’t see the simplicity of it.
The fundamental challenge to be solved is how do we reinvent and redesign our economic institutions to keep pace with job destroying and labor devaluing technological innovation and invention so not all of the benefits of owning FUTURE productive capacity accrues to today’s wealthy 1 percent ownership class, and ownership is broadened so that EVERY American earns income through full-payout stock ownership dividends so they can afford to purchase the products and services produced by the economy.
None of this is new from a macro-economic viewpoint as productive capital is increasingly the source of the world’s economic growth. The role of physical productive capital is to do ever more of the work of producing more products and services, which produces income to its owners. Full employment is not an objective of businesses. Companies strive to keep labor input and other costs at a minimum. Private sector job creation in numbers that match the pool of people willing and able to work is constantly being eroded by physical productive capital’s ever increasing role, as well as manufacturing outsourcing seeking the lowest production costs. Besides the outsourcing, over the past century there has been an ever-accelerating shift to productive capital––which reflects tectonic shifts in the technologies of production. The mixture of labor worker input and capital worker input has been rapidly changing at an exponential rate of increase for over 235 years in step with the Industrial Revolution (starting in 1776) and had even been changing long before that with man’s discovery of the first tools, but at a much slower rate. Up until the close of the nineteenth century, the United States remained a working democracy, with the production of products and services dependent on labor worker input. When the American Industrial Revolution began and subsequent technological advances amplified the productive power of non-human capital, plutocratic finance channeled its ownership into fewer and fewer hands, as we continue to witness today with government by the wealthy evidenced at all levels.
People invented tools to reduce toil, enable otherwise impossible production, create new highly automated industries, and significantly change the way in which products and services are produced from labor intensive to capital intensive––the core function of technological invention. Binary economist Louis Kelso attributed most changes in the productive capacity of the world since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to technological improvements in our capital assets, and a relatively diminishing proportion to human labor. Capital, in Kelso’s terms, does not “enhance” labor productivity (labor’s ability to produce economic goods). In fact, the opposite is true. It makes many forms of labor unnecessary. Because of this undeniable fact, Kelso asserted that, “free-market forces no longer establish the ‘value’ of labor. Instead, the price of labor is artificially elevated by government through minimum wage legislation, overtime laws, and collective bargaining legislation or by government employment and government subsidization of private employment solely to increase consumer income.”
Furthermore, according to Kelso, productive capital is increasingly the source of the world’s economic growth and, therefore, should become the source of added property ownership incomes for all. Kelso postulated that if both labor and capital are interdependent factors of production, and if capital’s proportionate contributions are increasing relative to that of labor, then equality of opportunity and economic justice demands that the right to property (and access to the means of acquiring and possessing property) must in justice be extended to all. Yet, sadly, the American people and its leaders still pretend to believe that labor is becoming more productive.
A National Right To Capital Ownership Bill that restores the American dream should be advocated by both the progressive movement and the conservative movement, which addresses the reality of Americans facing job opportunity deterioration and devaluation due to tectonic shifts in the technologies of production and the wage cost-saving pressure resulting from globalization.
There is a solution, which will result in double-digit economic growth and simultaneously broaden private, individual ownership so that EVERY American can benefit from significant income growth, providing the means to support themselves and their families with an affluent lifestyle. The Just Third Way Master Plan for America’s future is published at http://foreconomicjustice.org/?p=5797.
The solution is obvious but our leaders, academia, conventional economist and the media are oblivious to the necessity to broaden ownership in the new capital formation of the future simultaneously with the growth of the economy, which then becomes self-propelled as increasingly more Americans accumulate ownership shares and earn a new source of full-dividend income derived from their capital ownership in the “machines” that are replacing them or devaluing their labor value. This can be accomplished without taking from those who already own and can be the one-up solution to poverty wage competition on a global scale.
The solution will require the reform of the Federal Reserve Bank to create new owners of future productive capital investment in existing and new businesses simultaneously with the growth of the economy from financing viable projects. The solution to broadening private, individual ownership of America’s future capital wealth requires that the Federal Reserve stop monetizing unproductive debt, including bailouts of banks “too big to fail” and Wall Street derivative speculators, and begin creating an asset-backed currency that could enable every child, woman and man to establish a Capital Homestead Account or “CHA” (a super-IRA or asset tax-shelter for citizens) at their local bank to acquire a growing full-dividend-bearing stock portfolio to supplement or replace their incomes from work and all other sources of income. Policies need to insert American citizens, without the requirement of past savings, into the low or no-interest investment money loop to enable non- and undercapitalized Americans, including the working class and poor, to acquire capital with the earnings of capital and build wealth, and become “customers with money.” The proposed Capital Homestead Act would produce this result.
See the article “The Absent Conversation: Who Should Own America?” published by The Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-reber/who-should-own-america_b_2040592.html and by OpEd News at http://www.opednews.com/articles/THE-Absent-Conversation–by-Gary-Reber-130429-498.html
Also see “The Path To Eradicating Poverty In America” at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-reber/the-path-to-eradicating-p_b_3017072.html and “The Path To Sustainable Economic Growth” at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-reber/sustainable-economic-growth_b_3141721.html. And also “Second Income Plan” at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-reber/second-income-plan_b_3625319.html
Also see the article entitled “The Solution To America’s Economic Decline” at http://www.nationofchange.org/solution-america-s-economic-decline-1367588690 and “Education Is Critical To Our Future Societal Development” at http://www.nationofchange.org/education-critical-our-future-societal-development-1373556479. And also “Achieving The Green Economy” at http://www.nationofchange.org/achieving-green-economy-1373980790. Also see it complete with the footnotes at http://foreconomicjustice.org/?p=9082.
Also see “Financing Economic Growth With ‘FUTURE SAVINGS': Solutions To Protect America From Economic Decline” at NationOfChange.org http://www.nationofchange.org/financing-future-economic-growth-future-savings-solutions-protect-america-economic-decline-137450624 and “The Income Solution To Slow Private Sector Job Growth” at http://www.nationofchange.org/income-solution-slow-private-sector-job-growth-1378041490.