Chart of the day: The long decline of labor
This chart comes from Margaret Jacobson and Filippo Occhino at the Cleveland Fed, and it’s reasonably terrifying — yet another one of those charts where the trend is down and to the right, and where it’s only gotten worse since the end of the recession.
What you’re looking at here is the share of total national income which is accounted for by labor — a measure that includes wages, salaries, bonuses and things like pension and insurance benefits. Everything else is capital income: interest, dividends, capital gains. There are two ways of measuring this, which is why there are two lines; both of them are telling the same story.
The fascinating thing to me, here, is what has happened since the crisis. Over the past three years or so, wages and salaries have been rising steadily, while interest rates have been stuck at zero. It’s never been harder to make income from capital, while incomes for people with jobs have actually kept on rising. And unemployment, while still high, has been coming down.
Given all that, it would stand to reason that the share of national income going to labor should be rising, not falling. Labor incomes are going up, the number of employed people is going up, and income from savings is going down. And yet! It turns out that people with capital are so rich, and getting so much richer, that it’s not even close. All that belly-aching about the plight of savers on fixed incomes in a zero interest-rate environment? Well, you don’t see it in these numbers. Looking at this chart, if you were given the choice between having money and no job, or having a job but no money, it’s not obvious which one to go for.
Of course, as the Cleveland Fed paper shows, a lot of the story here is about rising inequality. But the more powerful, if less obvious, story, is just how entrenched capital income has become in the US economy. As recently as 2000, it was at levels more or less in line with the historical average. And then, something big happened. During the Great Moderation — when yields fell on all capital asset classes — capital income went up sharply. Then the crisis happened, a classic case of a dog not barking: you’d expect capital income to have fallen enormously, at least for a year or two, but it didn’t, it just stopped rising. Most recently, in the wake of the financial crisis, capital income has been soaring again.
There’s a big lesson here for anybody serious about fiscal policy, too. (Paul Ryan, I’m looking at you.) As the labor share of income goes down and the capital share of income goes up, the only way that we can stop tax revenues from plunging disastrously is to tax capital income at least as much as we tax labor income. By contrast, the Ryan plan proposes taxing capital income at zero — putting ever more of a burden on working Americans, while giving unearned income a massive tax break the rich really don’t need.
There are big global forces driving this chart, most importantly the way in which labor is becoming increasingly global and fungible. Labor income has been declining for a good 25 years, and the only substantial countertrend was the dot-com bubble. The trend is a bad one, and it’s getting worse. And while I don’t see any policies, on either side of the aisle, which really try to address it, the fact is that Republican policies seem explicitly designed to exacerbate it. Think of capital income as the money flowing to “job creators”, and the chart is very clear on that front.