[page-number of print ed.: 68]

Growth and Worker Capitalism
Jerry Jasinowski

Many Americans believe there is an „income gap." A good response to this view is to paraphrase Mark Twain: Reports of income inequality are greatly exaggerated. This discussion should begin by dispelling four of the main myths about income inequality.

  • Some argue that workers’ share of national income is declining. When total compensation – that’s wages, salaries, commissions and bonuses, benefits and the employer share of the FICA tax – are taken together, the labor share of national income has remained constant – slightly over 70% from 1968 to 1998.

  • Next, are wages declining? Yes, if a few years are selectively chosen here and there or if a particular category of workers is studied. But not if you take a longer-term and more accurate look at the economy. When the overstated Consumer Price Index is taken into account, it is clear that worker income in general is rising. From 1976 to 1996, real wages went up by almost 12%. During the same period, total compensation rose over 15%. There is no downward trend in real wages and income when they are properly measured.

  • Is cheap labor in developing countries draining employment opportunities away from America? No. Almost 70% of the jobs US companies create overseas are in developed countries. The entire economy of Mexico is the size of the economy of Los Angeles. Trade accounts for almost a third of our economic growth. 96% of our potential customers live outside our borders.

  • Some will argue that the people at the bottom are staying there, that there is a widening gap between the average American and the rich. While there are a number of Americans

[page-number of print ed.: 69]

    who seem locked-in at the bottom, for the overwhelming majority of the American people, the trend toward upward mobility is consistent.

Consider the findings of a study by economist Isabelle Sawhill about economic mobility. She took the years 1984 through 1985, when the US was having a high growth rate of 6%, and found that 40% of those in the economic quintile – the lowest one-fifth of income – moved up out of that category in a single year. In America, the tide is still rising.

The tendency to exaggerate income inequality also tends to obscure the amazing economic gains of recent years.

  • We are near full employment, in contrast to Europe, where regulatory controls on the economy have stifled growth for decades. From 1992 to 1997, America created 11 million jobs while during the same period the European Union estimated job losses of 900,000.

  • Our increasingly high-tech economy is longing for qualified workers. Tens of thousands of high-tech jobs – one estimate places the number at 350,000 – are going unfilled because we lack the qualified employees we need. Clearly, the job market is one of opportunity, not shrinkage.

  • Two-thirds of our manufacturing companies now offer some form of incentive-based pay. In 1996, the average income from wages was slightly over $32,000 a year. But when all forms of compensation are factored in, including wages, benefits, bonuses and so forth, that amount increases to $38,000 annually. In manufacturing, the average actual yearly compensation is $45,000.

[page-number of print ed.: 70]

According to a recent Peter Hart survey, 43% of all American adults now own stock, a number that has doubled in recent years. Say that a worker earns $32,000 annually and puts 5% of his or her wages into an IRA each year. After 30 years, based on a 10% rate of return – the average rate since the stock market opened in 1927 – the worker will have accumulated almost $350,000. That’s real wealth for ordinary people.

  • Over the last few years, technology and productivity have, together, driven inflation down from almost 11% in 1980 to about 1% today. In the fifties, it took 563 hours to earn enough to buy a television, almost 300 hours to buy a kitchen range and 71 hours to fly from coast to coast. Today, it takes 23 hours to earn enough to buy a television, 22 hours to buy a kitchen range and 16 hours to earn enough to fly across country.

The good news far outweighs the bad. But there is still some news that many people dislike.

There is a core underclass in the United States that is not sharing in the benefits of our booming economy. As of 1996, over 36 million Americans were classified as being in poverty. Of these people, 7.2 million were unemployed. The remaining poor include welfare recipients, children, low-income workers and the elderly poor. The good news is that this number is down from over 15% of the population in 1993. But saying that 14% of Americans are poor should make no one happy.

Another group that is falling behind is comprised of people without adequate skills and education. They have an at-best 12th grade education and are having difficulty making ends meet. In 1996, over 36 million American adults – almost 19% of the adult population – lacked a high school diploma.

[page-number of print ed.: 71]

The relationship between education and earning power is clear. According to the 1996 Economic Report of the President, each additional year of post-high school education is worth roughly 5- to 15% in additional income. Among persons 18 years and older, those not holding a high school diploma have difficulty competing and need real, practical help.

How can ordinary people be helped to increase their income and share in the wealth of the economy? How can worker capitalism be fostered?

This discussion should begin with a single premise: We cannot lose sight of the need to maintain strong growth and full employment. The benefits of growth are apparent to any observer of the economy. If the growth rate were to be raised by half a percentage point over the next seven years, on a cumulative basis, tremendous gains would be achieved. Real GDP would increase by $675 billion; direct compensation to labor – wages and salaries – would increase by $390 billion; and the pretax income of the average family would increase by almost $6,600.

The question, then, is how to keep the economy growing and workers employed while increasing compensation for current workers and bringing the underclass into the economic mainstream? The answer is the „four Ts" – training, taxes, technology and trade – along with new models of compensation for America’s workers.

First, the educational system and job-training programs need to be significantly improved. A high percentage of college freshmen have to take remedial reading classes just to function at the university level. The anecdotes about high school graduates who can’t add are well known. The school system (kindergarten through high school) needs choice and competition while government job programs need to be consolidated and reformed.

[page-number of print ed.: 72]

This needs to done because education pays. By the early 1990s, the earnings differential between high school and college graduates was almost 90%. As noted earlier, each additional year of schooling after high school is worth from 5 - 15% in higher earnings. Education raises productivity – in manufacturing, for example, a one-year increase in the educational level of workers equals an 8.5% hike in productivity.

In addition to improving training and education, tax reform is needed, most especially when it comes to Social Security, a great program that needs to be saved. Right now, the FICA tax is eating up 15% of workers’ paychecks. By 2005, Social Security will be running in the red and will cease to exist within about 30 years. If workers were allowed to put all their Social Security contributions into an IRA, based on a 10% annual rate of return, someone making $32,000 would have $840,000 after 30 years. Private investment accounts work. They’ve worked in Chile, Britain and Singapore. And they would work in America.

Next, the United States needs to stay on track with its strong technology base. Two-thirds of productivity growth stems from technology improvements. Higher productivity means higher compensation.

As mentioned earlier, high-tech companies need qualified workers. The success of the American economy depends on high technology. And that means substantial improvements in education and training.

The fourth „t" is trade. Trade now accounts for over 30% of our economic growth. Trade means employment security in well-paying jobs here at home. Companies that export offer workers, on average, 15% more in pay and 40% more in benefits. America must go where the money is –overseas – to keep growing.

[page-number of print ed.: 73]

Finally, the US needs to look well beyond the old static models of hourly wages and time clocks. Incentive-based pay, stock ownership, 401(k) plans, employee stock option programs, or ESOPs, and bonus compensation are, taken together, the new way of helping our workers more fully benefit from our economy.

Consider: In 1975, slightly less than 250,000 workers – less than a third of percent of everyone employed nationwide – were involved in some form of employee ownership. By 1996, almost 16 million employees representing 12.4% of total civilian employment participated in employee ownership plans.

Here is a specific example: At Oregon Steel Mills in the 1980s, a management-led buyout, using the company’s employees stock ownership program, gave employees 100% ownership of the company. The result? Productivity skyrocketed by 300%. Sales and earnings grew on average by more than 40% from 1989 through 1992. The average pay of $50,000 before benefits is 25% higher than the industry average – and more than 100 Oregon Steel employees became millionaires in the value of their stockholdings just three years after the company went public in 1988.

America’s workers are competing successfully in the global economy. The US must continue to help these workers do so. They must be turned into entrepreneurs and turn laborers into capitalists. This „worker capitalism" is the recipe for economic success.

The United States is poised on the edge of a new era of opportunity and prosperity. America’s workers need the tools to thrive in this new era, tools that offer greater individual empowerment, technology, training and higher compensation. That’s where the future lies, and it is a bright one for America’s workers.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | Juli 2000

Previous Page TOC Next Page